The feast of Christmas was formally established as December 25 in the early fourth century by Pope Julius I. Not long after, Christians in France began observing a 40-day period of preparation for Christmas involving penance and fasting. By the early seventh century, Pope Gregory had written liturgical prayers for the Advent season, and the practice of Advent as a penitential season continued into the middle ages. Later developments led to the four-Sunday celebration of the season we celebrate today.
According to the Church norms, advent — which derives from a Latin term meaning “coming” — is about more than just the birth of Christ. Instead, it has a dual character involving both “comings” of Christ.
The eight days leading up to Christmas, from December 17 to December 24, focus on preparations to celebrate Christ’s birth, while the period from the First Sunday of Advent (which falls on December 2 this year) through December 16 directs our hearts and minds to the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time.
Thus Advent “is a time of waiting, conversion and of hope,” according to a 2001 document of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
The Church no longer imposes specific penitential practices during this season, but repentance remains an Advent theme. Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum pontifical university in Rome, said that while Advent is “more centered on spiritual purification and preparation to receive the Lord,” it also “has a certain penitential character,” even if not as pronounced as that of Lent.
That call to penance is reflected in the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Advent, which speaks of John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord by “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (see Lk 3:1-6).
Catholic devotions and traditions of Advent can help us prepare for the two “comings” of Christ and keep us mindful of the call to repentance during this season.
“Popular piety,” the Vatican document states, “intuitively understands that it is not possible coherently to celebrate the birth of Him ‘who saves his people from their sins’ without some effort to overcome sin in one’s own life, while waiting vigilantly for Him who will return at the end of time.”
Advent wreaths, Jesse trees, Christmas trees, and Nativity scenes are a few of the most common traditions.
The Advent wreath, a custom that originated in Germany, consists of a circular wreath of evergreen branches into which four candles – usually three purple candles and one rose candle – representing the four weeks of Advent are inserted. The color purple indicates the season’s penitential character, while the rose candle represents the Third Sunday in Advent, called Gaudete Sunday, a day for rejoicing as the Christmas feast draws near.
Lighting the candles each week accompanied by prayer and hymns symbolizes our hope and expectation for the two comings of Christ.
The Jesse Tree tradition dates to the Middle Ages. To a small bare tree is added each day a new ornament symbolic of God’s plan of redemption – depicting, for example, Noah’s ark or the Ten Commandments. Reading the relevant Scripture passages provides a way to reflect on salvation history.
The evergreen Christmas tree symbolizes life; it further reminds us of the tree of Eden, setting for mankind’s original sin, and the wood of the Cross by which Christ atoned for our sins. A Nativity scene with the manger left empty keeps us mindful that we await the fulfillment of our salvation in Christ.
Feasts and fasting
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8) is a holy day of obligation commemorating not the Christ child, as is sometimes erroneously thought, but the Virgin Mary, who was conceived without sin in preparation for her vocation as the Mother of God.
Many families in the United States celebrate St. Nicholas Day (December 6) and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12), but a lesser-known Scandinavian tradition marks St. Lucy Day (December 13). The eldest daughter of a family dons a white dress, a red sash, and a crown wreath of candles as she takes pastries to members of her household in the pre-dawn hour. It recalls St. Lucy, a third-century martyr who carried food to Christians hiding in the catacombs of Rome during the Diocletian persecutions. The white dress is reminiscent of a baptismal robe, the red sash indicates martyrdom, and the candles represent the light of Christ that dispels the darkness – all symbols worthy of reflection during Advent.
Posada, a Latin American tradition, is a re-enactment of Joseph and Mary’s search for lodging in Bethlehem as the birth of Jesus drew near. Leading a procession of the faithful who follow while singing Advent hymns, individuals portraying the holy couple walk from house to house seeking shelter before finally finding welcome. More than an elaborate drama, posada reminds us of our need to be prepared to receive Christ when he comes.
Novenas and penances
Spiritual preparation requires increased attention to contemplation. Praying the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of thanksgiving at the time of her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, during the final week before Christmas using the O Antiphons is a longstanding Catholic tradition (see sidebar).
Advent novenas provide another tool. The St. Andrew novena is prayed 15 times a day from the saint’s feast day (November 30) through Christmas day. There also are several novenas dedicated to the Holy Child Jesus, usually prayed from December 16 through Christmas Eve.
Another Advent tradition is a novena of Masses. Celebrated in Spanish-speaking, Portuguese- speaking, and Filipino communities, this tradition goes by names such as Misa de Aguinaldo (“Gift Mass”), Misa de Gallo (“Rooster Mass”), and Simbang Gabi (“Night Mass”). The Masses are celebrated daily at dawn from December 16 to 24 (or at night on December 15 to 23) as a way to prepare for Christ’s coming with joy and thanksgiving.
Acts of penance go to the historical roots of Advent tradition. Making a good examination of conscience followed by sacramental confession during Advent is a salutary preparation for Christmas. Many parishes offer communal celebrations of the sacrament of Penance during December for this reason.
Just as Catholics observed an Advent fast through the Middle Ages, the Eastern Catholic churches have retained a 40-day fast in the weeks leading to Christmas – a period called the Nativity Fast. Beginning on St. Philip’s feast (November 15), the Nativity Fast is more rigorous than the Lenten fast in the Roman Catholic Church in that it includes abstinence from meat, dairy, eggs, and all animal products. The fast becomes even stricter over the final 12 days before Christmas.
As Pope Leo the Great said in the fifth century, “What is more effective than fasting, by which we approach God, and, resisting the devil, we overcome indulgent vices? … And through these voluntary afflictions, our flesh dies to concupiscence and our spirit is renewed for moral excellence.”
Fasting further provokes physical hunger, reminiscent of the spiritual hunger we have for Christ. This fasting, as with repentance and other Advent traditions, is an appropriate model for the anticipation of His “comings” during Advent.
GERALD KORSON is a Legatus magazine staff writer.