All about Advent

Hans Rollmann
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Among the treasured memories of my childhood in the Eifel Mountains of Germany is celebration of the Christian Advent season. During Advent, the ordinary course of business became more festive, colourful, and joyous, not only because of beautiful, seasonally decorated store windows but also because of four "open-for-business Sundays." Business not as usual signaled the special character of this season. Yet the religious and folk traditions that dominated Advent left the strongest impressions with me. Advent began with the lighting of the first Advent candle on a wreath in church in anticipation of Christmas.

The word Advent, meaning "coming," is Latin for the Greek biblical word "parousia." It has a twofold religious meaning, in that it prepares people liturgically and spiritually for the birth of Jesus at Christmas, the incarnation, but is also a reminder of that second coming, when Christ will return as judge and final redeemer.

The first of the four Sundays of Advent ushers in a new church year with its festal calendar, the special season having been marked as such ever since Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century.

The twofold meaning of first and second coming is liturgically perhaps best illustrated by our Moravian brothers and sisters in Labrador, who devote the second Sunday in Advent liturgically to Christ's return as judge of the world. Labrador has unique and particularly rich Advent traditions, among them the multi-pointed Herrnhut Advent Star and the antiphonal singing of the Hosanna hymn of Christian Gregor on the first Sunday, and occasionally fourth Sunday, in Advent.

Childhood memories

During my childhood in the predominantly Roman Catholic Rhineland, I would place my shoes on the broad window sill opening to our inner courtyard to find in them in the morning some sweets that the Christ child had brought me. Christmas in our region was the exclusive domain of the Christ child. There was no Santa coming down the chimney on Christmas since Santa had already come on Dec. 6 during the Advent season.

Unlike the North American Santa, who works overtime in his workshop at the North Pole to distribute presents on Christmas, my "Sankt Nikolaus" remained a Christian saint. On his feast day, he would leave behind small gifts and treats for children on colourful paper plates.

These gifts were, however, only for good boys and girls; those who had not behaved throughout the year might find a bundle of switches on their paper plate the next morning, although I never heard of a single case where this had actually happened. More dramatic was the Saint Nikolaus figure who on Dec. 6 visited children, dressed like the ancient bishop of Myra. In my hometown, this legendary figure went from house to house, asking boys and girls whether they had been good or bad, rewarding - the usually good ones - with a present. Saint Nikolaus was always remarkably well-informed about the virtues and faults in a child's character.

On the whole, the man with the white beard, flowing robes, miter, and crosier, presented a dignified and benign image. His frightful servant, Knecht Ruprecht, a feudal inheritance from the middle ages, offered a quite different presence and pursued a quite different mission.

Unlike the bishop, Servant Ruprecht represented a diabolical character dressed in rags, with a large chain, switches, and a sack, into which, we were told, he would put children who had disobeyed their parents. Throughout the year, the warning "Watch out, so that Servant Ruprecht will not take you in his sack" reinforced and intensified our fears.

In retrospect, it appears that the two figures played out for the child a ritual judgment of reward and punishment with eternal consequences, a foretaste of the final judgment on earth.Already in 1784, the enlightened Bishop of Trier, Clemens Wenzeslaus, questioned the pedagogical wisdom of such frightful encounters, something, he said, ran "counter to a reasonable education of children."

The bishop and territorial ruler also feared social unrest, that "through such mummering, emotionalism and troubles might ensue on our streets," and forbade his clergy to participate in the charade. Yet folk traditions often outlast pedagogical advice, because the benign saint and his frightful servant were still dispensing justice nearly two centuries later during my childhood in the early 1950s.

Hans Rollmann is professor of religious studies at MUN and can be reached by email:

Geographic location: Eifel Mountains, Germany, Labrador North Pole Sankt Nikolaus Myra

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