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Legatus Magazine

Cover Story
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi | author
Dec 01, 2008
Filed under Features

Advent traditions inspire families

Legates’ seasonal customs help pass on the faith to children

Advent is a unique season for Catholics.

While most Americans are concerned with shopping and cooking during the 40 days before Christmas, faithful Catholics engage in time-honored traditions meant to reverently mark the time before Jesus’ birth.

Family traditions

Legatus member David Persing of San Francisco recalled Advents prior to the conversion of his entire family — his wife Susan and eight children — to Catholicism five years ago.

“In my Protestant Church, there was not as much of a buildup as you see in Advent for Catholics,” he said. “There isn’t this formal anticipation. Advent for Catholics is a process leading to a climactic celebration. And it doesn’t even end at Christmas.”

Susan Persing also felt a change after her conversion.

“My conversion brought a deeper meaning to the whole season. There was a more joyful anticipation,” she said. “The feast of the Immaculate Conception took on a whole new meaning for me because it falls on my birthday. It made me really look at the Incarnation and realize that this doctrine was so necessary. Jesus was divine; he couldn’t have anything to do with sin. This realization was just extraordinary and awesome.”

The Persings came to realize that for Catholics, Advent is more than just a time for Christmas shopping. It’s a liturgical season with rich traditions. Advent customs are an excellent way to teach the faith to children. Highly interactive activities include building a Jesse Tree, lighting the AdventWreath before family prayer, using an Advent calendar, and singing and praying the “O Antiphons” from the Old Testament.

“Advent is also a season for contemplating the extraordinary faith and obedience of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” said Meredith Gould, author of The Catholic Home: Celebrations and Traditions for Holidays, Feast Days and Every Day. “Although there are many traditional and whimsical ways to celebrate Advent, contemplating Mary’s Yes can be an especially powerful spiritual practice for adults.”

Gellert and Elizabeth Dornay, members of Legatus’ Seattle Chapter, have a unique family tradition to contemplate Mary’s pregnancy. They’ve modified the traditional Advent wreath tradition by placing a “pregnant candle” in the middle.

“We light the candles in the AdventWreath every night for 40 days,” Elizabeth Dornay explained. “We place a large blue candle in the center for Mary and cover it with a cloth. On Christmas Eve we finally take off the cloth and light that blue candle to show that Mary has finally given birth.”


Creating a Jesse Tree is another Catholic family tradition. It’s a way of connecting the 4,000 years of salvation history to the birth of Jesus. Over the course of Advent, children decorate the Jesse Tree (a poster, real tree or branch) with symbols to represent stories leading up to the birth of Christ. The practice finds its origins in Isaiah’s prophecy: “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom” (Isa 11:1).

The Dornays have been crafting Jesse Trees every Christmas for years.

“We take disks, put pictures on them and then hang them on a dead branch,” Dornay said. “Each disk tells a story. The last disk has a picture of the baby Jesus.”

The family delights in seeing a dead tree branch come to life through Advent, she said, so that on the last day it looks alive with the colorful homemade ornaments. After each disk is hung, the family sings “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

The Persings also mark Advent with song, singing Christmas carols for the first time at Thanksgiving.

“We have always been involved in choirs,” said Susan Persing, an accomplished pianist. “When the children were little, choir was the only activity they could all do together. They didn’t always want to do it, and sometimes I had to bribe them. But now they love it!”

In fact, one of the Persings sings in a Spokane opera company while studying at Gonzaga University. He also sings Gregorian chant.When the family sings together, they do it in multi-part harmony.

Christmas cuisine

Cooking is one of the best parts of the season for both secular and religious families. The Persings, who have a German background, bake mounds of Christmas cookies and create elaborate gingerbread houses. Catholics with a Southern Italian background have another unique tradition.

“Fish was always a staple in my house for Christmas Eve,” said Teresa Tomeo, a member of Legatus’ Detroit NE Chapter. “We did the seven fishes on Christmas Eve. According to my research, it has to do with the seven days of creation and/or the seven sacraments. Other areas of Italy have 13 kinds of fish on Christmas Eve for Jesus and the 12 apostles.”

Not only do Catholics nourish their bodies during the season, but also their hearts and minds.

Elizabeth Dornay, a selfproclaimed bibliophile, has been collecting Christmas books for years. She stores them in a special box which only comes out during Advent. She puts them away at Epiphany. Her children know that they only get to see these books during this season. They look forward to it all year long.

Dornay also has her children sing the seven “O Antiphons,” which are prayed during the last seven days of Advent (Dec. 17- 23). The “O Antiphons” were likely developed by monks during the sixth century. They pieced together texts from the Old Testament which looked forward to the coming of our salvation. Each begins with the exclamation “O” and ends with a plea for the Messiah to come.

Advent and Christmas traditions can be as varied as those who practice them. They are designed to bring the faithful back to the significance of Christ’s birth (and his second coming) rather than the gifts under the tree.

“The current economic situation provides a valuable opportunity to shift our focus away from the commercialization of Christmas,” said Gould, author of The Catholic Home. “Because these activities take place primarily in the domestic Church, they provide a way to keep Catholic faith traditions vibrantly alive in between Mass attendance.”

“We begin to really feel what the Holy Family felt,” said David Persing. “Catholics just do a better job of anticipating and appreciating what happens at Christmas.”

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is a staff writer for Legatus Magazine.


Advent defined

Advent (from the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming”) is a season of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus – in other words, the period immediately before Christmas. It is the beginning of the Church year in the Western Church. The Christmas season begins on Dec. 25 and continues until the Baptism of Our Lord.


Advent resources

Jesse Tree


O Antiphons

Straw Tradition


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