Tag Archives: tradition

Catholics in waiting: celebrating Advent

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.”

Common traditions

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.

Sparkle of Louisiana Christmas traditions

Le Réveillon, or the awakening (the morning feast following Midnight Mass on Christmas or New Year’s Eve) is an age-old custom inherited by the Louisiana Creoles from their European ancestors and adopted by the Germans who settled in the River parishes of Louisiana. Réveillon was a time of family reunion and thanksgiving, which began early in the evening with family members converging on households for hours of conversation. In the French Quarter of New Orleans when the church bells began to ring at about 11 o’clock, the Creoles and their families strolled to St. Louis Cathedral for Christmas Mass. A man might miss any service during the year, but he would be certain to join his family for Midnight Mass at Christmas.

Christmas Eve was recognized as a day of fasting and abstinence by most Catholics. By the end of Midnight Mass the Creoles were hungry and ready to celebrate with a Réveillon feast. Family members returning from church were greeted with an elaborate meal of daube glacé, chicken and oyster gumbo, salmis or game pies, egg dishes, sweetbreads, soups and soufflés, grillades, grits, hominy, homemade breads, crystallized fruits, fruitcake and lavish desserts, wine, brandy, eggnog and New Orleans coffee. The Creole table emulated what might have been found on the tables of France during that same hour.

In rural South Louisiana, Le Réveillon was celebrated though in admittedly more humble circumstances. People gathered at the house of the family matriarch or patriarch to visit, then to walk to Midnight Mass. Often, the trip was lighted by bonfires along the levee, and a hearty breakfast always followed. It is actually the bonfire tradition that has stood the test of time. St. James Parish, where I grew up, was settled in the 1700s by French and German settlers from the Old World. It seems that the bonfire tradition was inherited from these generations past. As necessity is so often the mother of invention, many surmise that because there were no churches on the east bank of the Mississippi River at that time, those living there had to cross the river to attend Mass. So, bonfires were lit on the west bank to guide their skiffs safely across the muddy waters.

The Folse family certainly participated in the annual bonfire tradition. The day after Thanksgiving, we started gathering timber to create the bonfires that we would enjoy in the weeks ahead. Much to our father’s dismay, we put willow branches within the wooden pyre so that once lit, there would be popping and sparks like fireworks.

Today, it is believed that the bonfires light the way for Papa Noel and his team of swamp gators. Bonfire festivities are accompanied with a celebration of food. Most commonly served are steaming bowls of Chicken and Andouille Gumbo served over rice. Faith, family and food – then, as now – is a mainstay of Louisiana life.

Chef JOHN D. FOLSE is an entrepreneur with interests ranging from restaurant development to food manufacturing, catering to culinary education. A cradle Catholic, Chef Folse supports many Catholic organizations including the Sister Dulce Ministry at Cypress Springs Mercedarian Prayer Center in Baton Rouge, LA.


Daube Glacé – A festive Creole hors d’oeuvre

Daube glacé is a classical Creole hors d’oeuvre, traditionally beef braised with vegetables; this one is made with leftover cooked daube, which is seasoned and set with gelatin. Any combination of leftover meats can be used – such as chicken, turkey, ham, or pork – along with any terrine mold. During the holidays, try a festive shape to add flair to your table.

Prep Time: 2.5 Hours, Yield: 12-15 Servings

1 (3-pound) cooked daube, cut into (1-inch) cubes
2 quarts beef stock reserved sauce from precooked daube
½ cup minced onions
½ cup minced celery
½ cup minced red bell peppers
¼ cup minced garlic
½ cup minced carrots
½ cup chopped parsley
salt and cayenne pepper to taste
3 (1-ounce) envelopes unflavored gelatin, dissolved in ¾ cup warm water

In a cast-iron Dutch oven, bring beef stock and sauce from precooked daube to a light boil. Add daube, onions, celery, bell peppers and garlic into sauce, stirring to combine. Reduce heat to simmer and cook until meat becomes very tender and easily shreds apart. Strain all ingredients from liquid through a fine sieve and set aside. Return liquid to heat and reduce to 1½ quarts. Add carrots and parsley then season to taste using salt and cayenne pepper. Whisk dissolved gelatin into sauce. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Break the meat into small pieces and place equal amounts into two terrine molds. Divide cooked vegetables from the original sauce evenly between the two molds. Ladle stock over the meat, cover with plastic wrap and allow to set in the refrigerator. Daube glacé is best when allowed to sit 24 hours for flavors to develop. When set, slice daube glacé and serve with garlic croutons.

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