Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs – Advent

Advent Wreath; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

HISTORY

Origin

The celebration of Christ’s nativity on December 25 was introduced as a special feast in Rome about the middle of the fourth century. It quickly spread through the Roman Empire of the West, and by the fifth century was already established in Gaul and Spain. Since it was one of the main feasts of the Christian year, a spiritual preparation soon began to be held. From the Church in Gaul comes the first news about a definite period prescribed for this preparation. Bishop Perpetuus of Tours (490) issued the regulation that a fast should be held on three days of every week from the Feast of Saint Martin (November 11) to Christmas. The name Advent was not yet used for this preparatory period; it was called Quadragesima Sancti Martini (Forty Days’ Fast of Saint Martin’s).

This practice of keeping a penitential season before Christmas spread all through France, Spain, and later also to Germany. The fast, however, was started at different times (September 24, November 1 or 11 or 14, December 1). For Mass texts on the weekdays of Advent the Church in Gaul simply used the Masses of Lent.

In Rome the celebration of Advent originated considerably later, during the sixth century. There the season comprised only four or five Sundays. Pope Gregory the Great (604) preached a number of homilies on Advent. Unlike the Gallic Church, Rome had no established fast (except, of course, in Ember week). Advent in Rome was a festive and joyful time of preparation for the Feast of the Lord’s Nativity, without penitential character.

When, in the eighth century, the Frankish Church accepted the Roman liturgy, the nonpenitential Advent of Rome clashed with the penitential observance of the much longer Gallic Advent. After a few centuries of vacillation there emerged a final structure of Advent celebration which combined features of both traditions. Rome adopted the fast and penitential character from the Gallic observance, while the Roman tradition of a four weeks’ Advent and the Roman liturgical texts prevailed over the ancient Gallic custom of a seven or nine weeks’ celebration. This compromise was completed in the thirteenth century. From that time, the liturgical observance of Advent has remained practically unchanged.

Fast

The law of Advent fast was never as strict as that of Lent. It varied widely in different sections, both in content and in time. In most cases people were obliged to fast three days a week and to abstain from certain foods. Bishop Burchard of Worms (1025), for instance, issued the following regulation: “In the Quadragesima before Christmas you must abstain from wine, ale, honey-beer, meats, fats, cheese, and from fat fish.”

According to the penitential practice of those centuries, the faithful were also bound to abstain from weddings, amusements, pleasure travel, and from conjugal relations during the time of fasting.

This observance of Advent fasting came from the North to Rome at the end of the first millennium. There it was quickly adopted by most monasteries, later also by the authorities of the Church, and finally prescribed for all the faithful. A letter of Pope Innocent III (1216) shows that in his time it already was a traditional part of the Advent celebration in Rome. In subsequent centuries the obligation was gradually lessened by papal indults, the fast usually being restricted to two days a week (for example, Friday and Saturday in Italy, Wednesday and Friday in Austria), until the new Code of Canon Law (1918) completely abrogated it and only kept the fast of Ember week and of the Christmas vigil (and, lately, the vigil fast of the Immaculate Conception, December 7).

Oriental Churches

The Eastern Churches do not keep a liturgical season in preparation for Christmas, but they observe a fast. In the Byzantine Rite this fast has been customary from the eighth century. It begins on November 15 and lasts till Christmas. Its name is “Quadragesima of Saint Philip” (Tessaranthemeron Philippou) because it starts on the day after the Feast of the Apostle Philip. The Syrians of the Antiochene Rite also have a fast of forty days before Christmas, but the Catholic Syrians keep it, by papal indult, only for the last nine days before the Nativity. The Armenians now celebrate a fast of three weeks (instead of the original seven weeks), at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of Advent. (Their Advent starts at the middle of November and runs until Epiphany.) The Copts, too, observe a fast, which is very strict, from November 24 (in upper Egypt) or from December 9 (in lower Egypt) until the Feast of the Nativity (which they celebrate on Epiphany). The Syro-Chaldeans begin their “Fast of the Nativity” or “Fast of the Annunciation” at the middle of November or, in some dioceses, on the Sunday nearest to December l.

LITURGY

Seasonal Character

The liturgy of Advent is wanting in that harmony and unity which characterize the other seasons of the ecclesiastical year. Its features present a somewhat confused and unfinished aspect. Three factors are responsible for this. First, Gregory the Great, who had shaped the basic structure of the Roman Advent with the sure hand of an inspired leader, did not fill out the details himself. Second, the original form of the Roman celebration was mixed and molded with the Gallic features into a “unit” that contained two somewhat opposite trends of thought (a season of joy and, at the same time, a season of penance). Finally, after the combination was made, no master appeared who could have shaped these elements into a celebration of unified harmony. Instead, the structure was prevented from further growth and development and preserved without change through the past centuries up to the present.

Thus, to give but a few examples, Advent has no ferial Masses, as Lent has, but on “free” days the Sunday Mass is repeated. It has no preface of its own, but must continue (on Sundays) the preface of the Holy Trinity, which does not actually fit the season. (Lent, on the other hand, has two fitting seasonal prefaces.) In Advent the liturgy of the season must bow on most days to feasts of saints, while in Lent only March 19 and 25 take obligatory precedence. The orations in Advent express various trends and perspectives. Some of them speak of the coming of the Saviour at His birth, others of His coming at the end of time, and others again of a coming into the hearts of the faithful. Similarly, some lessons and Gospels clearly reveal the purpose of joyful preparation for Christmas, while others treat of the end of the world and the second coming of the Lord, not in the apostolic sense of jubilant expectation, but with the note of salutary fear and admonition to penance. In the Masses of the season (Sundays) the Gloria is omitted, and so is the Te Deum in the Divine Office; but the Alleluia is retained, and the third Sunday (Gaudete) bears a special character of joy.

Joy and Penance

In Rome, for almost a thousand years Advent was celebrated as a season of joyous preparation for the Feast of the Lord’s Nativity.

The Gospel of the first Sunday in Advent (Luke 21, 25-33), speaking of the end of the world, did not pertain to the original liturgy of Advent. Gregory the Great used it on a certain occasion when, at the end of November, a great storm had devastated Rome and killed many people. (Its descriptions read like modern reports of a hurricane.) The pope wanted to console the people and explain to them the meaning of such natural catastrophes, hence he took the Gospel text that begins “And there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars, and upon earth distress of nations.” After the reading of this Gospel, he preached a homily on it. Now the fact that the pope had used this particular passage on a Sunday around the beginning of December was duly noted in the manual of the Roman Church. In later times it was mistakenly assumed that Gregory had intended it as a regular Advent text, and thus it appeared in the Roman Missal as Gospel of an Advent Mass.

As late as the beginning of the twelfth century the liturgical books of Saint Peter’s in Rome show the use of festive vestments, of the Gloria in the Mass and the Te Deum in the Divine Office for Advent. By the middle of the same century, however, the Frankish influence had caused the Roman authorities to make the change from a season of joy to one of penance: Gloria and Te Deum were dropped, and Advent soon acquired the traditional marks of a season of penance, similar to Lent. The color of liturgical vestments then was black (later changed to purple), the dalmatic (deacon’s vestment) was prohibited because it represented a “gown of joy,” celebration of weddings and organ playing in church were forbidden, and various penitential features were introduced into the Divine Office. In some places the sacred images were even veiled with purple cloth as they were in Lent.

On the other hand, all these changes toward a penitential aspect remained more or less on the surface, for its innermost liturgical character distinguishes Advent very sharply from Lent. The texts of the Roman Missal, despite occasional motives of fear, penance, and trembling (which had been added from the Frankish liturgy), kept its basic note of joyful expectation of Christ’s birth. Thus the liturgists, from the twelfth century on, have found no simple unity in the celebration of Advent, but have had to explain its character by a diversity of purposes. William Duranti (1296), Archbishop of Ravenna, one of the first to analyze the liturgical significance of Advent, expressed it in a formula which since then has been repeated in many books: Advent is partly a time of joy (in expectation of the Saviour’s nativity) and partly a season of mourning and penance (in expectation of the judgment on the Last Day).

Significance

The name Advent (Coming) originally was used for the coming of Christ in His birth and was thus applied to Christmas only. After the sixth century various preachers and writers expanded its meaning to include the whole preparatory season, in the sense in which the word is now used. In the twelfth century it came to be interpreted as representing a two- or three-fold “Advent” of Christ: His past coming, in Bethlehem; His future coming, at the end of time; and His present coming, through grace in the hearts of men.

The present penitential character of Advent, although not consonant with the original celebration in Rome, still usefully fits the purpose of the season. By a spirit of humble penance and contrition we should prepare ourselves for a worthy and fruitful celebration of the great Feast of the Nativity. This penance is not as harsh as that of Lent – there is no prescribed fast – and the joyful note of the season helps people to perform penitential exercises in a mood of happy spiritual toil, to “make ready the way of the Lord” (Matthew 3, 3).

The Second Coming

There actually is a season of the year in which the Church draws our minds and hearts to the second coming of Christ. This season extends over the end of the ecclesiastical year through Advent and up to Epiphany. After having celebrated the events of the Lord’s life on earth, His birth, Passion, resurrection, and ascension, and also the descent of the Holy Spirit and the life of Christ in His Mystical Body, the Church finally puts before our eyes a magnificent vision of eternal glory and reward: in the Lord Himself (Feast of Christ, the King), in His members who have already passed from this world (All Saints and All Souls) , and in the events at the end of time when the remaining elect will be gathered into their glory ( Gospel of the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost; Matthew 24, 15-35). Thus the ecclesiastical year, like a majestic symphony, ends on the powerful and triumphant strains of a final victory, not yet obtained by all, but assured and certain for those who remain “faithful unto death” (Apocalypse 2, 10). Then follows, in Advent, the thought of our own spiritual preparation for this glorious coming of the Lord at the end of time, and the humble security of our hope that His last coming will be consoling and joyful, just as His coming and His manifestation was in the first Christmas and the first Epiphany at Bethlehem.

FOLKLORE

The Advent Wreath

The Advent wreath originated a few hundred years ago among the Lutherans of eastern Germany. It probably was suggested by one of the many light symbols which were used in folklore at the end of November and beginning of December. At that season of the year our pre-Christian forefathers began to celebrate the month of Yule (December) with the burning of lights and fires. The Christians in medieval times kept many of these light and fire symbols alive as popular traditions of ancient folklore. In the sixteenth century the custom started of using such lights as a religious symbol of Advent in the houses of the faithful. This practice quickly spread among the Protestants of eastern Germany and was soon accepted by Protestants and Catholics in other parts of the country. Recently it has not only found its way to America, but has been spreading so rapidly that it is already a cherished custom in many homes.

The Advent wreath is exactly what the word implies, a wreath of evergreens (yew or fir or laurel), made in various sizes. It is either suspended from the ceiling or placed on a table, usually in front of the family shrine. Fastened to the wreath are four candles standing upright, at equal distances. These candles represent the four weeks of Advent.

Daily at a certain time (usually in the evening), the family gathers for a short religious exercise. Every Sunday of Advent one more candle is lit, until all four candles shed their cheerful light to announce the approaching birthday of the Lord. All other lights are extinguished in the room, and only the gentle glow of the live candles illuminates the darkness. After some prayers, which are recited for the grace of a good and holy preparation for Christmas, the family sings one of the traditional Advent hymns or a song in honor of Mary.

The traditional symbolism of the Advent wreath reminds the faithful of the Old Testament, when humanity was “sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 2, 79); when the prophets, illumined by God, announced the Redeemer; and when the hearts of men glowed with the desire for the Messiah. The wreath – an ancient symbol of victory and glory – symbolizes the “fulfillment of time” in the coming of Christ and the glory of His birth.

In some sections of Europe it is customary for persons with the name of John or Joan to have the first right to light the candles on Advent wreath and Christmas tree, because John the Evangelist starts his Gospel by calling Christ the “Light of the World,” and John the Baptist was the first one to see the light of divinity shining about the Lord at His baptism in the Jordan.

Children’s Letters

This is an ancient Advent custom, widespread in Europe, Canada, and South America. When the children go to bed on the eve of Saint Nicholas’s Day (December 5), they put upon the window sills little notes which they have written or dictated, addressed to the Child Jesus. These letters, containing lists of desired Christmas presents, are supposed to be taken to heaven by Saint Nicholas or by angels. In South America the children write their notes to the “little Jesus” during the days from December 16 to 24 and put them in front of the crib, whence, they believe, angels take them to Heaven during the night.

Preparing the Manger

This custom originated in France but spread to many other countries. It is the practice of having children prepare a soft bedding in the manger by using little wisps of straw as tokens of prayers and good works. Every night the child is allowed to put in the crib one token for each act of devotion or virtue performed. Thus the Christ Child, coming on Christmas Day, finds an ample supply of tender straw to keep Him warm and to soften the hardness of the manger’s boards.

Advent Calendars

Originating in Germany, this custom has of late been spreading widely in other countries. A colored scene of the “Christmas House” printed on a large piece of cardboard is put up at the beginning of December. Every day one “window” of the house is opened by the children, revealing a picture or symbol that points toward the coming Feast of Christmas. Finally, on December 24, the “door” is opened, showing the Nativity scene. These calendars are a useful means of keeping the children’s minds pleasantly occupied with the expectation of Christmas and with the spiritual task of preparing their souls for the feast.

Novena

In Central and South America, the nine days before Christmas are devoted to a popular novena in honor of the Holy Child (La Novena del Nino). In the decorated church, the crib is ready, set up for Christmas; the only figure missing is that of the Child, since the manger is always kept empty until Holy Night. The novena service consists of prayers and carol singing accompanied by popular instruments of the castanet type. After the novena service, the children roam through the streets of the cities and towns, throwing firecrackers and rockets, expressing their delight over the approach of Christmas.

In central Europe the nine days before Christmas are kept in many places as a festive season. Since most of the religious observances were held after dark or before sunrise, people began to call this season the “Golden Nights.” In the Alpine sections it is the custom to take a picture of the Blessed Virgin from house to house on these nine evenings (Carrying the Virgin). Every night the family and servants gather before the image, which stands on a table between flowers and burning candles. There they pray and sing hymns in honor of Mary the Expectant Mother. After the devotion, the picture is carried by a young man to a neighboring farm. The whole family, with torches and lanterns, accompanies the image, which is devoutly received and welcomed by its new hosts in front of their house.

Meanwhile, schoolboys carry a statue of Saint Joseph every night to one of their homes. Kneeling before it, they say prayers in honor of the saint. On the first night, only the boy who carried the statue and the one to whose home it was brought perform this devotion. The following nights, as the statue is taken from house to house, the number of boys increases, since all youngsters who had it in their home previously take part in the devotion. On the evening of December 24 all nine of them, accompanied by nine schoolgirls dressed in white, take the image in procession through the town to the church, where they put it up at the Christmas crib. This custom is called Josephstragen (Carrying Saint Joseph).

Advent Plays

A peculiar type of Advent play is the German Herbergsuchen (Search for an Inn). It is a dramatic rendition of the Holy Family’s fruitless efforts to find a shelter in Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary, tired and weary, knock at door after door, humbly asking for a place to stay. Realizing that they are poor, the owners refuse their request with harsh words, until they finally decide to seek shelter in a stable.

Usually the whole performance is sung, and often it is followed by a “happy ending” showing a tableau of the cave with the Nativity scene. There are scores of different versions, depending on the various songs and sketches provided in the text.

A similar custom is the Spanish Posada (the Inn), traditional in South American countries, especially Mexico. On an evening between December 16 and 24, several neighboring families gather in one house, where they prepare a shrine, and beside it a crib with all its traditional figures, but the manger is empty. After a procession through the house, pictures of Joseph and Mary are put on the shrine, venerated with prayer and incense, and all present are blessed by a priest. The religious part of the Posada is followed by a gay party for the adults, while the children are entertained with the Piñata. This is a fragile clay jar, suspended from the ceiling and filled with candy. The children, blindfolded, try to break the jar with a stick so the contents will spill, and everybody then rushes for some of its treasures.

Rorate Mass

In the early mornings of the “Golden Nights,” long before sunrise, a special Mass is celebrated in many places of central Europe. It is the votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin for Advent, called Rotate from the first words of its text ( Rotate coeli desuper: Dew of Heaven, shed the Just One). By a special permission of Rome, this Mass may be sung every morning before dawn during the nine days preceding Christmas provided the custom existed in a place from ancient times. The faithful come to the Rorate Mass in large numbers, carrying their lanterns through the dark of the winter morning.

Saint Thomas’s Day

In some parts of central Europe ancient customs of “driving demons aways” are practiced on the Feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle (December 21) and during the following nights (Rough Nights), with much noise, cracking of whips, ringing of hand bells, and parades of figures in horrible masks.

In a Christianized version of this custom farmers will walk through the buildings and around the farmyard, accompanied by a son or one of the farm hands. They carry incense and holy water, M-hich they sprinkle around as they walk. Meanwhile, the rest of the family and servants are gathered in the living room reciting the rosary. This rite is to sanctify and bless the whole farm in preparation for Christmas, to keep all evil spirits away on the festive days, and to obtain God’s special protection for the coming year.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve, the last one of the “Golden Nights,” is the feast day of our first parents, Adam and Eve. They are commemorated as saints in the calendars of the Eastern Churches (Greeks, Syrians, Copts). Under the influence of this Oriental practice, their veneration spread also in the West and became very popular toward the end of the first millennium of the Christian era. The Latin Church has never officially introduced their feast, though it did not prohibit their popular veneration. In many old churches of Europe their statues may still be seen among the images of saints. Boys and girls who bore the names of Adam and Eve (quite popular names in past centuries) celebrated their “Name Day” with great rejoicing. In Germany the custom began in the sixteenth century of putting up a “Paradise tree” in the homes in honor of the first parents. This was a fir tree laden with apples, and from it developed our modern Christmas tree.

MLA Citation

  • Father Francis Xavier Weiser, SJ. “Advent”. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, 1952. CatholicSaints.Info. 22 February 2017. Web. 11 December 2017. <>