Monday, December 5, 2016

Advent Traditions - The Advent Calendar

An advent calendar is usually a poster with 24 small doors, one to be opened each day from December 1 until Christmas Eve. Each door conceals a picture. This popular tradition arose in Germany in the late 1800s & soon spread throughout Europe & North America. Originally, the images in Advent calendars were derived from the Hebrew Bible.

The Advent calendar windows open to reveal an image, poem, a portion of a story (such as the story of the Nativity of Jesus) or a small gift, such as a toy or a chocolate item. Some calendars are strictly religious, whereas others are secular in content.

During the 19C in Germany, the days preceding Christmas were marked off from December 1 with chalk on "believers" doors. Then in the late 19C the German mother of a child named Gerhard Lang made her son an Advent Calendar comprised of 24 tiny sweets stuck onto cardboard. Lang never forgot the excitement he felt when he was given his Advent calendar at the beginning of each December, & how it reminded him every day that the greatest celebration of the whole year was approaching ever nearer. 

As an adult, Lang went into partnership with his friend Reichhold opening a printing office. In 1908, they produced what is thought to be the 1st  printed Advent Calendar with a small colored picture for each day in Advent.  Around the same time, a German newspaper included an Advent calendar insert as a gift to its readers. Lang’s calendar was inspired by one that his mother had made for him and featured 24 colored pictures that attached to a piece of cardboard. Lang modified his calendars to include the little doors that are a staple of most Advent.

The idea of the Advent Calendar caught on with other printing firms as the demand swiftly increased, and many versions were produced, some of which would have printed on them Bible verses appropriate to the Advent period.  By the time that the Advent Calendar had gained international popularity, the custom came to an end with the beginning of the WWI, when cardboard was strictly rationed to be used for purposes necessary to the war effort. 

President Eisenhower's grandchildren with an Advent Calendar

However, in 1946, when rationing began to ease following the end of the WWII, a printer named Richard Sellmer once again introduced the colorful little Advent Calendar, and once again it was an immediate success.  After the war, the production of calendars resumed in 1946, by Selmer. Selmer credits President Eisenhower with helping the tradition grow in the United States during his term of office. A newspaper article at the time showed the Eisenhower grandchildren with The Little Town Advent calendar. 

Some European countries such as Germany, where the 1st Advent poster originated, also use a wreath of fir with 24 bags or boxes hanging from it. In each box or bag there is a little present for each day.

The Rough Road from Gregorian "Plain Songs" to joyous Christmas Carols

Bicci Di Lorenzo (1375-1452) Coronation of the Virgin, Santa Maria Assunta, Pescia

Medieval Christmas music followed the 7C Gregorian or "plain song" tradition. 

Francesco D Antonio (14-15th century) Madonna and Child with Music-Making Angels, 1420s

The earliest extant written English Christmas carol, `A child is boren amonges man' is found in a set of sermon notes written by a Franciscan friar before 1350.

Hubert Eyck (c 1370-1426) and Jan van Eyck (or Johannes de Eyck) (Flemish artist, c 1395–c 1441) Detail The Ghent Altarpiece

During the 14C Franciscan Richard Ledrede from Canterbury collected songs, while he was Bishop of Ossory. However, he limited the collection for use by vicars, priests & clerks during the Christmas season - not the laity. He wrote that the religious may sing these songs "in order that their throats & mouths, consecrated to God, may not be polluted by songs which are lewd, secular, & associated with revelry."

Jan van Eyck (or Johannes de Eyck) (Flemish artist, c 1395–c 1441) Detail from The Fountain of Life

Most Christmas carols were handed down by word of mouth over hundreds of years. Though most carols related to the Virgin Mary, the shepherds, the Magi, & Jesus’ birth, there were also secular favorites.  Oral tradition songs about nature & pagan customs, such as riotous drinking celebrations refected the culture of the day. Some of these popular songs probably had their roots in Winter Solstice festivals celebrating midwinter & the rebirth of the sun, some with references to holly & ivy.

Mariotto de Nardo (1394-1424) Virgin & Child, Detail Angel musicians, ca 1400

Carol singing was not originally limited to Christmas. New Year, Easter, saints' days, & planting & harvesting times generated their own carols. Some carols were general & could be sung year-round. Only in the 19C did carol-singing become almost exclusively associated with Christmas.

Nicolo di Pietro (14-15th century) Madonna Enthroned, 1394, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

The church wasn't always thrilled about joyous carol singing.  The carol was prohibited as early as the mid 7C in a decree issued by the Council of Chalonsur-Saone. 

Nicolo di Pietro (14-15th century) Madonna with child, saints and angels, 1390-1400, Lindenau

Church uneasiness with the laity singing carols continued for centuries.  The 1209 Council of Avignon issued a similar ban on carols.

Pere Serra (Gothic-Italian style painter, active in Catalonia in 1357-1406) Madonna with Angels Playing Music, c 1390

Borrowing from ancient "pagan" secular sources in order to "intoxicate the ear" was deplored in the 14C by Pope John XXII. The 1435 Council of Basle continued issuing bans against carols.

Robert Campin (1375-1444) Virgin and Child

The 1545-63 Council of Trent attempted to diminish secular tendencies in Roman Catholic church music & to encourage attention to liturgical suitability & to the clear projection of approved lyrics & words.

Simone Martini (c 1280-1344) St. Martin is Dubbed a Knight, 1317-19, Chapel of St. Martin

By the end of the Middle Ages, all the major Christian feast days had acquired picturesque customs, processions, & folk music.  The folk music had its roots in popular dances & was characterized by a spirit of gaiety & simplicity. This emergence of the folk music of the people could no longer be suppressed by ecclesiastical authority.

Unknown Artist (14th century) Musical Angels, Sacro Speco, Subiaco

During the 15C, the carol continued as a popular religious song, but it also developed as art music & as a literary form. By the end of the 15C, carols appeared in a court songbook, The Fayrfax Manuscript. 

Vitale da Bologna (1309-1360) Coronation of the Virgin 

Post Script;
This dear woodcut tells a different story about religion & music. Here gentlemen dance about in a circle; while a priest, see the rosary, and a lady are apparently so dizzy that they have fallen to the floor. During the 14C Franciscan Richard Ledrede from Canterbury collected songs, while he was Bishop of Ossory. However, he limited the collection for use by vicars, priests & clerks during the Christmas season - not the laity. He wrote that the religious may sing these songs "in order that their throats & mouths, consecrated to God, may not be polluted by songs which are lewd, secular, & associated with revelry."

Advent Traditions - Italy

Christmas time begins on the 1st Sunday of Advent in Italy, which comes 4 weekends before Christmas. This period is called "Novena." Children during this time go out singing Christmas carols & verses for sweets & coins.  The Novena is a religious ritual linked to the rosary. While there are many times of the year where this devotional activity takes place, one of the most observed is Christmas.  In the 9 days leading up to Christmas day, the rosary is said as a preparation to welcoming Christ.  This religious tradition was extended with children going from house to house just as the time of prayer was over to sing traditional Christmas songs. The children would in turn receive small gifts of sweets or cakes.

Families set up manger scenes on the 1st day of "Novena."  Every morning they gather around the nativity scene, pray & light candles.  Children write letters to their parents wishing then a merry Christmas & promise good behavior.  They also prepare a wish list of the gifts they want from their parents. These letters of appreciation are read out loud at dinnertime by the parents. 

While Christmas decorations in Italy are beginning to include Christmas trees, the main emphasis is still on Nativity scenes.  Many families place huge, life-size images of Mary & Joseph on their property.  Nativity scenes are inevitable in almost every household in all churches.  They are also found in many public areas as well. 

In the last days of Advent, before the shrines of Mary in Rome & surrounding areas, bagpipers & flute players, Zampognari & Pifferaiin, in traditional colorful costumes of sheepskin vests, knee-high breeches, white stockings & long dark cloaks, travel from their homes in the Abruzzi mountains to entertain crowds of people at religious shrines.  

Tradition holds that the shepherds played these pipes, when they came to the manger at Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant Jesus.

During Advent in Italy the ceppo appears.  The ceppo is a wooden frame several feet high designed in a pyramid shape. This frame supports several tiers of shelves, often with a manger scene on the bottom followed by small gifts of fruit, candy, & presents on the shelves above. The "Tree of Light," as it is also known, is entirely decorated with colored paper, gilt pinecones, & miniature colored pennants. Small candles are fastened to the tapering sides & a star or small doll is hung at the apex.

An old tradition in Italy is the Urn of Fate which calls for each member of the family to take turns drawing a wrapped gift out of a large ornamental bowl until all the presents are distributed.

Advent Traditions - The Advent Wreath

The Advent wreath, or Advent crown, is a Christian tradition that marks the passage of the four weeks of Advent leading to Christmas in the liturgical calendar of the Western church. 

The origin of the Advent wreath is uncertain.  It is believed that Advent wreaths have their origins in the folk traditions of northern Europe; where in the deep of winter, people lit candles on wheel-shaped bundles of evergreen.  It is believed that pagan Mid-Winter rituals sometimes featured a wreath of evergreen with four candles. The candles were placed in each of the four directions to represent the elements of earth, wind, water and fire.  Rites were solemnly performed in order to ensure the continuance of the circle of life symbolized by the evergreen wreath. 

Like many Church traditions, the use of candles in the late fall and winter was originally a pagan tradition. Rev. William Saunders wrote that “pre-Germanic peoples used wreaths with lit candles during the dark and cold December days as a sign of hope in the future warm and extended sunlight days of spring.” In the middle ages, the Germanic peoples began incorporating a lighted wreath into the Christian season of Advent. It didn’t gain widespread popularity until the 1800s, and it wasn’t until the 1900s, that German immigrants brought the tradition to America.There is evidence of pre-Christian Germanic peoples using wreathes with lit candles during the cold & dark December days as a sign of hope in the future warm & extended-sunlight days of Spring.  

In Scandinavia during Winter, lighted candles were placed around a wheel, & prayers were offered to the god of light to turn “the wheel of the earth” back toward the sun to lengthen the days & restore warmth.  Both the evergreen & the circular shape symbolized ongoing life.  The candlelight gave comfort at this darkest time of the year, as people looked forward to the longer days of spring.  

By the Middle Ages, the Christians adapted this tradition & used Advent wreathes as part of their spiritual preparation for Christmas. By 1600, both Catholics & Lutherans had more formal practices surrounding the Advent wreath.

The wreath is made of various evergreens which are green yeear round.  The Advent Wreath is endlessly symbolic. The evergreens in the wreath itself are a reminder of continuous life. The shaping of them into a circle reinforces that meaning. The circle is also a sign of the eternity of God.The circle of the wreath, which has no beginning or end, symbolizes the eternity of God, the immortality of the soul, & the everlasting life found in Christ. 

The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent.  In some Christian churches, one purple or blue candle is lit each week, but the Catholic church uses a rose candle on the 3rd Sunday.  Purple dyes were once so rare & costly that they were associated with royalty; the Roman Catholic Church has long used this color around Christmas & Easter to honor Jesus. The candles symbolize the prayer, penance, & preparatory sacrifices & goods works undertaken at this time.  The light signifies Christ, the Light of the world.  Some modern day wreaths include a white candle placed in the middle of the wreath, which represents Christ & is lit on Christmas Eve. 

Advent Traditions - Children in Normandy setting fields on fire

At Advent in Normandy, when the final harvest was complete, farmers used to pick a night to send their children to run through the fields & orchards carrying flaming torches, setting fire to bundles of straw, to drive out pests likely to damage the crops.  If a farmer had no children of his own, his neighbors lend him theirs, for none but young & innocent children could command destructive animals to withdraw from his lands. After 12 years of age children were believed unfit to perform the office of mammal exorcists. 

The children would sing

Taupes,cherrilles, et mulots,
Sortez, sortez, de mon clas,
Ouje vous brule la barbe et los os. 
Arbres, arbrisseaux,
Donnez-moi des pomes a miriot.

Mice, caterpillars, & moles get out of my field!
I will burn your beard and bones!
Trees and shrubs, give me bushels of apples!

The children were like the coming Christ child who would drive all evil from the earth.  "As the Christ Child drove away sin, so do these children drive away vermin."

Many worried about the possibility of accidents which could arise from this assembly of juvenile torch-beares, scattering "their flames around them on every side; but there is a remedy for all dangers; this fire never burns or injures anything but the vermin against which it is directed: — such, at least, is the belief of the simple folks who inhabit the department of the Eure-et-Loire." (Time's Telescope, 1828)

See William Hone, The Year Book of Daily Recreation and Information. London: Thomas Tegg, 1832. December 5.

Advent in Britain Today - Candles

Today, Advent is not widely celebrated in England, although in the Anglican church calendar Advent remains the official start of the Christmas season. One tradition that remains in England is the the Advent candle. To many Christains, the 4 candles of Advent represent the 4,000 years between Adam & Eve - the birth of Christ during which mankind waited for the arrival of Jesus. In the homes of many Christains, a candle is lit each Sunday during the season of Advent to signify the entrance of Christ, the light, into the world.

One type of Advent candle has 25 marks on it, & the candle is burned down by one mark each day. In some homes, 24 candles are kept, one for each night from December 1 through Christmas eve. One candle is lit for a while on December 1, then a new candle is added each day for the 24 day period. Advent candles are lit in many homes, schools and churches, in England, with a final central candle lit on Christmas Day.  

Madonnas attributed to Duccio di Buoninsegna c 1255-1319

 Duccio (Italian, Sienese, 1255-1319). Madonna and Child

Duccio (c 1255-1319) was one of the most influential Italian artists of His time. Born in Siena, Tuscany, he worked mostly with pigment and egg tempera and like most of His contemporaries painted religious subjects.

Duccio (Italian, Sienese, 1255-1319). Madonna and Child

Duccio (Italian, Sienese, 1255-1319). Madonna with Angels and Saints. Detail 1308-11

Duccio (Italian, Sienese, 1255-1319). Madonna and Child

Duccio, Madonna and Child also called Stoclet Madonna or Stroganoff Madonna, c. 1300

Duccio (Italian, Sienese, 1255-1319). Madonna and Child

Duccio (Italian, Sienese, 1255-1319). Gualino Madonna

Duccio (Italian, Sienese, 1255-1319). Madonna and Child

In this blog, I try to begin each day with a painting of the Madonna & Child. It centers me; connects me to the past; & encourages me to post some of the religious paintings which were a large part of the core of early Western art.  In the 4C, as the Christian population was rapidly growing & was now supported by the state, Christian art evolved & became grander to suit new, enlarged public spaces & the changing contemporary tastes of elite private clients.