What a good place to start! We’ll start at the very beginning of Christmas in the calendar which is the season we call Advent. Advent is the four weeks before Christmas. These days Advent is the annoying little brother to Christmas, the one that keeps saying, “are we nearly there yet?” but Advent isn’t just a time to get ready for the big day, it is a thing in itself.
Advent is a four-week period of preparation for Christmas. It starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, any time from November 27th to December 3rd. During Advent, Christians also think about the second coming of Jesus, who promised he would return to judge the world.
Advent traditions include advent candles on an advent wreath in church. This is a display of five candles, four of them to be lit one at a time on the four Sundays of the season and a central candle for Christmas Day. In different traditions the candles have different meanings and different colours. It’s thought that the first Advent candle wreath was made in Hamburg in Germany in 1833 to explain the countdown to Christmas to children.
The four candles are closely related to the advent calendar. These days these always start on December 1st and usually go right through the Christmas Day. Each day has a numbered window which opens to reveal a surprise – maybe a picture or Bible verse telling the Christmas story, but more often in our time it’s some chocolate. It’s a test of your patience and resolve not to scoff the whole calendar full of chocolate in the first week of Advent, but if you can hold back you can use it as a way of watching December disappear as the days count down to Christmas. Advent calendars are also big in Germany where they were invented in about 1850. By 1914 Germany printed the finest advent calendars as well as the best Christmas cards in the world but the Great war put an end to that.
A similar countdown to Christmas we love in our home is the advent candle which is marked with 24 segments. We like to burn one segment each evening and sing an advent of Christmas song round the candles. Advent candles were first used in Denmark where they are called “kalenderloos” and are still really popular.
However we do the Advent countdown, Christmas is more special if we don’t rush through Advent. Christmas starts on the 25th, that’s not when it ends. And we can prepare for Christmas by doing Advent well
A is for…
Angels play a big part in the Christmas story. Not only that but they look great on Christmas cards and in Christmas displays, so much so that they have become the face of Christmas. We even have them, on top of our Christmas trees – either an angel or a star – because the angel is the MC of Christmas – the master of ceremonies. It was an angel called Gabriel who kicked off the whole Christmas story by going to Zechariah and then to Mary, telling her that she was having God’s son in what we call the Annunciation – another Christmas A.
And then you get an angel going to Joseph, and after the couple have gone to Bethlehem first one them a whole crowd of angels appear to a group of shepherds. The word angel just means a messenger – but these are God’s messengers of the good news of the birth of his Son.
Angels have also appeared in all sorts of stories and legends and carols and songs. They add music and colour and an air of mystery to the Christmas scene. Painters love to paint them and songwriters love to put words inn their mouths.
One of the best-loved angels in the Christmas of many families is Clarence, the unlikely apprentice angel in the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. Clarence, played by Henry Travers, saves the life of the hero and saves Christmas for his community.
A is for…
The Argos catalogue
My earliest memories of Christmas is all to do with mail order catalogues. In my family had the Kays catalogue and the Littlewoods catalogue. The joy of those for my parents was that you could buy all sorts of things without the chore of going round the shops and you could also put them on your account and pay for them in instalments a bit every week and spread the cost of Christmas through the year. The joy of the mail order catalogues for me and my younger brother and sister was the cornucopia of delights in the pages.
When the winter edition arrived weren’t bothered with the first three-quarters of the catalogue which had lots of boring clothes and household items. We were interested in the toys and games in the back section. There they were – all any child could dream of – whether it was the latest Action Man or Mouse Trap board game. Maybe we could get Escape from Colditz or an Etch a Sketch, maybe even a Spacehopper. We started a list. First a long list, then a short list and then we waited and hoped we might actually get what the catalogues made to seem so exciting.
Later for most British families the mail order catalogues gave way to the Argos catalogues. Argos is Britain largest catalogue retailer where you choose what you’re buying out of the catalogue and order it in the shop by copying out some numbers using an iconic tiny blue pen. Argos grew out of the Green Shield stamps shops in the early 70s’ and the Argos catalogue soon became the place for children to gaze in wonder as they search for their Christmas toys. Lists for Father Christmas would have Argos numbers attached as if the man himself had his own little blue pen.
But no more. Argos have announced that their printed catalogue is coming to an end. The internet has won. Catalogue Christmas shopping is no more.
A is for…
Angels from the realms of glory and Angels we have heard on high
Each episode of the podcast is going to include some Christmas music. It might be a carol or a traditional Christmas song or a Christmas pop song. Today I want to compare two Christmas carols about A for angels.
The first is Angels from the Realms of glory. This one is sung in Britain more than in America. It was written by the Scottish newspaper editor James Montgomery in 1816, the same year as the words of Silent Night. In Britain it’s nearly always sung to this French tune called Iris. The words and the tune were put together in the very influential Oxford book of Carols. The words of the carol move from the angels proclaiming the birth of Jesus to the shepherds to the magi or wise men, to the saints before the altar – in other words the Christians in church. In the original there’s also a verse about the sinners who are “Doomed for guilt to endless pains” but we tend to miss that verse out these days.
The carol is best known for the refrain where we sing “come and worship, Christ the new-born king” but the word “come” is strung out over something like thirteen notes. Sometimes the “come and worship” bit is replaced with the Latin words “Gloria in excelsis deo”, and that where it starts to get confusing.
The confusion is with another Christmas carol that’s much better known in America that in Britain. This one is Angels we have heard on High.
This carol was written not by an American, but an Anglo-Irish Catholic bishop called James Chadwick. His words are a translation of a French carol Les anges dans nos campagnes – The angels in our countryside. This carol is more specifically about the angels singing to the shepherds in Bethlehem about the birth of Jesus. Each verse ends with the Latin line “Gloria in Excelsis deo”, glory to God in the highest, as it did in the original French version. By the way a song that combines English with Latin as some carols do is called Macaronic. And I’m sure you want to know that macaronic comes from the idea of it being foolish and from the Italian word for a dumpling which is also the source for the pasta called macaroni. So there.
Anyway this carol, Angels we have heard on High used to be popular in England, especially in the South West but dropped out of favour over here and has been sung more in the States. The tune it’s sung to is called known as “Gloria”, but it’s really a variation on the tune “Iris” that’s used for Angels from the realms of glory.
The two carols are different, but often get mixed up. And they both begin with A.
A is for…
Other Christmas As that didn’t quite make it? We could have looked more at the annunciation – we’ll do that when we get to Mary. There’s Prince Albert – we’ll get to him under V for Victoria. We could have gone to Austria where Silent Night was written, or Australia where Christmas is about sunshine and barbecues. But we’ve no time. We could have looked at All I want for Christmas is you – the Mariah Carey classic that you either love or hate. And I’ve left out my least favourite carol Away in a Manger. Away with that one.