The Christmas season in terms of North America begins the day after Thanksgiving, or Black Friday, and ends on Christmas Day which most people observe on December 25.
The liturgical season (and several traditions divide the year up into these) at that time is Advent, which starts December 3 (in some variants of the Anglican Communion) and ends December 24. Christmastide follows, from December 25 to January 6. So what many of us think of as the Christmas season is actually Advent.
The United States, United Kingdom, Canada and other similar western countries mark the occasion with something referred to as an Advent Calendar, which is a card or box with openable windows, numbered 1 to 25 which correspond to December 1st through the 25th inclusive. The front of the calendar has a Christmas scene printed on it, with a small image and/or chocolate behind each "window". The largest and most grandiose is the one behind window 25. Modern takes on the advent calendar have small bottles of liquor, or cheese. The gist though is that you can count down to Christmas Day by enjoying a morning chocolate and taking a moment to remember that we're in Advent.
Another tradition, one more associated with churches, is to make a wreath, weaving prayers into the foliage as the wreath comes together. This is a traditional church activity, though many people simply purchase a plastic one and re-use it year after year.
Advent comes from the Latin adventus, meaning "arrival". From a liturgical perspective the readings start to lead towards preparing for Christmas. The appropriate color for robes and altar runners and suchlike is violet, or purple. This represents penitence. As such the theme of the season is re-evaluating one's life, taking an inventory of sins and that which makes one stumble, and moving towards a holier and more productive spiritual life. For this (and honestly, for practical reasons) the church traditionally does not engage in joyful celebrations at this time - weddings and parties are eschewed. But this does not stop people from cooking food and sharing it with others, and trying to build community. Though it is a sober time, it does point towards the coming of Christ.
Devotionals are often published around Advent with a view of helping the faithful to pray and engage in certain spiritual disciplines as part of the spirit of the season. One focus of such prayer activities (some people do this without the prayer) is to light an Advent candle - anything from as simple as a plain white candle to any of a number of colors, marked off with numbers so that it burns down in equal amounts on the 25 days. There is something simple, and beautiful, about lighting a candle. Catholics, Episcopalians and High Anglicans make it a prayer focus to light a tea-candle in a holder within a church - bringing this simple and powerful meditative act home for many brings church into the home.
There's been an objection to Christmas - if you read the Gospel account carefully, you learn that shepherds were watching their flock by night outside, which is something that just was not done in winter Before Common Era, especially the dead of winter. Jesus was probably born in the spring or summer. But lacking a birth certificate the early church made a conscious decision to mark the period before the darkest and coldest time of the year leading to a day in which the season pulls away from the darkest and coldest day of the year in terms of Christ's birth. Lacking a physical date, they chose one that made sense theologically - thanking God for light and renewal at a time when the planet starts to tilt back towards the light and warmth.
I will leave you with a meditation suggested for the first week of Advent - to start thinking about what your longing is in terms of reconnection with the divine.
Jesus! Come and visit your people.
We await your
coming. Come, O Lord.