Now even nontraditional believers embrace the idea of daily reminders.
Beyond Bible passages and Nativity figures, eager children can count down the days with Legos and Playmobil, chocolates and gummy bears, Disney and Barbie, Peanuts and princesses, snowmen and soldiers. They do so with calendars made of paper and cardboard and wood and fabric often felt that feature little windows that open, close or slide.
For most Americans "waiting means annoyance," Utah's Catholic Bishop John Wester told his flock this week. "We don't like to wait we want to do, we want to be on the move. We sometimes fail to appreciate that Advent really is a gift that helps us open our hearts to that which we are expecting. This is unfortunate, because by rushing through to Christmas we miss many valuable experiences."
Advent, Wester said, "is a precious period for us to ponder and prepare."
It's all about the anticipation of wonder, said the Rev. Tom Abbott, pastor at Cottonwood Presbyterian Church.
"Our culture is so focused on the immediate," said Abbott, who is spending his first Christmas in Utah since becoming Cottonwood's pastor in September. "It is great to have a season where we think about waiting and preparing. Things of value take time. They don't necessarily happen in the moment."
What Christians await, he said, "is the gift of salvation and what that means for us."
On each of the four Sundays until Christmas, leaders at Abbott's church like many others across Utah and the nation light one candle in their evergreen wreath, which symbolizes everlasting life. Three of the candles are purple, representing aspects of Christ's royal lineage hope, peace and love.
On the third Sunday of Advent, he explained, the candle is pink, suggesting joy at the upcoming birth.
Finally, during the Christmas Eve service, a white candle, symbolizing Christ himself, is placed in the center of the wreath.
In her Advent sermon, Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts focused on the waiting women of Christian history.
There was Jesus' mother, Mary, who anticipated "the birth of the Promised One in her part of the world, a child born for the whole world," Jefferts said in a videotaped message at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd on the grounds of General Theological Seminary in New York City.
Then there was John the Baptist's mother, Elizabeth, who was "promised a child in her old age," the presiding bishop said. "These are both very unexpected births they are awaiting."
Finally, Jefferts said, there was Elizabeth of Hungary, a 13th-century saint "who was betrothed as a child herself, married at 14, a mother of three by the time her husband died when she was 20."
This saint "spent her life giving it away, giving it away both physically through her means and through her presence and her healing," Jefferts said. "She was an icon of generosity."
So what are Christians waiting for this year?
"Is it an opportunity to meet the surprising around you? Is it an opportunity to reflect on what is most needed in your heart and in the world around you? How are you going to wait for that gift? Are you going to wait actively? Engaged?" Jefferts asked. "Honing your desire? Stoking the passion within you for that dream? Are you going to wait for a dream that will bless the whole world?"
Rosemary Baron, a lifelong Catholic and hospital chaplain in Salt Lake City, celebrates Advent in the simple ways she learned as a child.
"We use the same Advent wreath that our son who is now 32 made when he was 5 years old," Baron wrote in an email. "It is braided and made from salt dough. We insert new candles each year and say Advent prayers and read a reflection by candlelight each evening after dinner."
Baron and her husband have followed this pattern during the nearly 40 years of their marriage and, before that, with her parents and siblings.
It is nothing new or extraordinary, she said, just "a spiritual preparation for Christmas."