Are you looking forward to the Christmas holidays? Actually there isn’t too much time left: from last Sunday we are already in the Advent season. Advent (from the Latin word adventus meaning “coming”) is a season observed in many Western Christian churches. It is a time of waiting and a time of preparation for Christmas. It starts on the fourth Sunday before 25 December and serves as a reminder both of the original waiting that was done by the Hebrews for the birth of their Messiah as well as the waiting of Christians for Christ’s return.

The usual liturgical colour in Western Christianity for Advent is purple or blue, which symbolises royalty and repentance, and it’s the colour of the dawn before the sun rises. In England, especially in the northern counties, there was a custom (now extinct) for poor women to carry around the “Advent images,” two dolls dressed to represent Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary. A halfpenny coin was expected from everyone who saw them for good luck, whereas not being visited by the doll-bearers was an omen of bad luck.

One of the Advent celebrations in Italy is the entry into Rome in the last days of Advent of the pifferari, or bagpipe players. They play before the shrines of Mary, like shepherds played when they came to Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant Jesus.

In recent times, the commonest observance of Advent outside church circles has been the keeping of an Advent calendar or Advent candle, with one door being opened in the calendar, or one section of the candle being burnt, on each day in December leading up to Christmas Eve. The keeping of an Advent wreath is also a common practice, with four or five candles extending from the wreath.