The Latin term adventus (arrival) can convey the same meaning as the Greek term epiphaneia (apparition). It used to be used for the arrival of a divinity in the temple, the first official visit of the new ruler, enthronement of the emperor. The Christians used this term for both the arrival of Christ among his people (his apparition in flesh), as well as for his expected second coming.
The first certain evidence of advent goes back to bishop Perpetuus from Tours (+ 490) who requested fasting on three days each week from November 11 through Christmas. This practice likely reflects a more ancient custom: the period between November 11 and Epiphany (January 6) is 8 weeks long and it used to be celebrated as fasting season, comparable to Lent. These 40 days served as a preparation for those who were being baptized on Epiphany (especially in the Eastern Church).
The duration of the Advent time varied significantly, especially in Rome and in the Western Church (six, five, or four weeks). Different was also the emphasis laid on this period in various areas. While the Church in Rome focused on the incarnation (Christmas motive), Gallia and other areas underlined expectations of the final times, making this period similar to Lent (penance, purple color, no Gloria during the liturgy).
Advent has a two-fold character, for it is a time of preparation for the Solemnities of Christmas, in which the first coming of the Son of God to humanity is remembered, and likewise a time, when, by remembrance of this, minds and hearts are led to look forward to Christ’s second coming at the end of time. Advent is a period of devout and expectant delight.Universal Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, 39
The four Sundays focus on different topics:
- First Sunday of Advent: return of Christ
- Second Sunday of Advent: preaching of John the Baptist
- Third Sunday of Advent: John points at the Messiah (rose vestment is allowed)
- Fourth Sunday of Advent: pre-history of the birth of Jesus
The origins of this custom are not entirely clear, but it most likely started in the second half of the 19th century in Hamburg, Germany, where a wheel was decorated with candles in an orphanage to facilitate the count-down to Christmas. Pine-tree branches were added later as an anticipation of the Christmas tree.