In much the same way children of today count down to big events in terms of the number of sleeps, the orphans counted down the weeks to Christmas using a wreath of candles - six smaller candles for weekdays, and a big white candle for each Sunday. Each day another candle was lit.
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Since 28 candles would be a fire hazard in most homes, the wreath was simplified to four candles - one for each Sunday, which is what we use today.
For those of us who celebrate the tradition, Advent is a whole lot more than just an evergreen wreath and a few candles. It's about family, community and about remembering what Christmas is really about.
When I was a child I was blessed to have a large family of aunts, uncles and cousins living close by. Every Sunday evening for the four weeks before Christmas we would get together to sing Christmas carols by the light of candles and the special Advent star.
My mother put together booklets containing dozens of English and German carols, and we each had a turn to select a song, starting with the youngest member of the family (usually my little brother) and ending with Omi, the family matriarch.
The last song was always Silent Night, to be sung in whichever language you chose. I always liked to mix it up and sing alternate verses in different languages.
After the carolling, we kids would do battle to blow out the most candles, and then there'd be coffee and Christmas biscuits (and cooldrinks for us kids). If we were really lucky, my grandmother would ration out the biscuits that came to be known as Omi's Specials, the Elisen biscuits containing almonds, hazelnuts and a spoonful of rum, baked on a rice paper base.
These days the family is scattered around the planet and my children are growing up wthout this wonderful experience. Advent celebrations are usually five of us sitting in the lounge singing along to CDs! At least we still have the Advent star, the candles and the cookies.
On the first Sunday of Advent this year, though, we joined the local German church for their Advent celebration. What a joy to be part of a community again, and to sing with loads of other voices - and the biscuits and cakes always taste so much better shared in company than eaten alone!
For me, the celebration of Advent represents everything that is best about Christmas. Not Santa Claus or gifts or the decorations in all the shopping malls, but family, tradition, and the whole reason for Christmas in the first place: the birth of a child who brought hope and light to the world.
Very apt, even for those of us who celebrate it in the brightness of midsummer rather than the darkness of midwinter.
What is your favourite part of Christmas, and what does it mean to you? I'd love to hear your stories!