Advent: in the ecclesiastical calendar, the season immediately preceding the festival of the Nativity, now including the four preceding Sundays

Advent calendar
Click to enlarge

Advent comes from Latin adventus, “arrival”, and the capitalized Advent refers, of course, to the arrival of the child Jesus, celebrated on Christmas Day. Because of the ecclesiastical business about Advent starting four Sundays before Christmas, the Advent season is of variable length. Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday this year (2023), so we have the shortest possible Advent season, beginning on Sunday, December 3. But in 2022, with Christmas Eve on a Saturday, we had the earliest start to Advent, on Sunday, November 27.

This variability is a problem for the manufacturers of commercial Advent calendars, like the one above, featuring little doors to be opened on each day of Advent. So they generally just start on December 1, making the product reusable from year to year.

When I was a child, Advent calendars just had little cardboard doors that opened to reveal Nativity-related scenes, generally working up to a crescendo for Christmas Eve. So you’d start off with a donkey or a sheep, progress through a star and a shepherd, and eventually get the big payoff of a luminous baby in a manger. Nowadays they seem to feature chocolate Disney characters instead. O tempora! O mores!

I had never encountered an Advent calendar in my short life until my primary school teacher unveiled one with great ceremony at the start of December. The star pupil of each day would be given the privilege of coming out to the front of the class to open a door. Reader, I was the star pupil on December 1. Having no clue what the whole thing was about, and having received a frankly inadequate briefing on the subject, I strode up to the calendar and opened the biggest door I could see—December 24. There was immediate outrage and condemnation from all quarters, and I ceased to be the star pupil. But I’m not bitter about it. Not at all.

The rare verb related to advent is advene, “to come (to)”, from Latin advenire, in turn from the prefix ad-, “to” and venire “to come”, and the noun advenement is an old word meaning “chance occurrence”—something that just comes to us out of the blue. Adventure started out with the same meaning, which is still present in the now little-used word peradventure, “by chance”, while adventure itself drifted off to find a new meaning. Something adventitious is an external addition, not part of the original. My favourite illustrative quotation from the OED for this word comes from An Essay On Waters (1756), by Charles Lucas:

[O]ur Thames, gliding with a much gentler motion over her stoney, flinty, gravelly or sandy bottom, preserves her purity and pellucidity, until she is tainted with an infinite variety of adventitious bodies from the streets and sewers of our capital, as well as from the scarce numerable ships and other vessels, that resort her port.

Old French dropped the d from Latin advenire and came up with avenir, “to approach”. The past participle of avenir was avenue, which modern French has turned into a noun, designating a broad road, sometimes lined with trees, along which one might approach a grand building. English borrowed the original meaning, but has since degraded the word so that avenue can now apply to pretty much any old residential street.

In addition to ad-, –vene has attracted a positive host of other prefixes in English. Some of these words have flourished, and some fallen by the wayside. To intervene is to “come between”; to contravene is to “come against”; and to convene is to “come together”, as at a convention or convent. Convenience also originally meant “a coming together”, in the sense of an agreement, but now it indicates something that is well-suited for its purpose. To supervene is literally to “come on top of”—that is, to happen immediately after something else. And to circumvene is to “come around”—a word which has mutated into circumvent.

Words that have been less successful in the lottery of usage include antevene, “come before”; prevene, “take action in anticipation of [something]”; postvene, “come after”; revene, “come again”; and obvene, which was a high-falutin’ way of saying “happen”. Provene, “proceed from”, has also fallen into disuse, but the related noun provenance is still with us. Latin subvenire gave us subvene, “come as a relief or remedy”, which never achieved any popularity. But it gave the French souvenir, “remembrance”. Adopted into English, then, a souvenir is something that brings remembrance.

Which is a convenient place to end this dissertation. If you’re given to celebrating Christmas, have a good one.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.