Brethren, knowing that it is now the hour for us to rise from sleep. For now our salvation is nearer than when we believed. The night is passed, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day: not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy: but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 13:11-14 as taken from the Epistle on the First Sunday of Advent).
A Season of Penance to Start the Liturgical Year
Advent as a season is quite ancient. The season itself went through slow development, taking form in the 4th century and reaching a definite form in Rome by 6th century. Advent starts on the Sunday nearest Nov 30th, which is the Feast of Saint Andrew, and it formed the beginning of the liturgical year by the 10th century. It started earlier at one time (as early as Nov 11) because it was fashioned after Lent, so it had forty days originally in some areas, and even earlier in other areas with a beginning in September, which forms the basis of the monastic fast. By the 6th – 7th centuries the number was set as a span of four Sundays. The 1962 Missal texts preserve most of the ancient Masses of this season.
Dom Prosper Guéranger writes in part on the history of Advent, noting how we should apply this time to our own spiritual development:
The name Advent [from the Latin word Adventus, which signifies a coming] is applied, in the Latin Church, to that period of the year, during which the Church requires the faithful to prepare for the celebration of the feast of Christmas, the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. The mystery of that great day had every right to the honor of being prepared for by prayer and works of penance…We must look upon Advent in two different lights: first, as a time of preparation, properly so called, for the birth of our Savior, by works of penance; and secondly, as a series of ecclesiastical Offices drawn up for the same purpose.
Customs in Advent
Advent is a liturgical season rich in customs that allow us to more spiritually enter into the mystery of these “two different lights.” Especially in a society that rushes Christmas and obscures all penance and preparation, keeping these customs will help us keep true Catholic practices, allowing us to do fitting penance now before celebrating from December 25th through February 2nd.
Rorate Mass: The Rorate Mass takes its name from the opening words of the Introit, which comes to us from Isaiah 45:8: “(Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the just: let the earth be opened and bud forth a Savior.” The Rorate Mass is traditionally illuminated only by candlelight. Because it is a votive Mass in Mary’s honor, white vestments are worn instead of Advent violet. There is a custom in which every day of Advent outside of certain major days the sung low Rorate Mass takes place. While it is difficult to have in most places, very few know the rubric which allows this as Matters Liturgical documents.
In the dimly lit setting, priests and faithful prepare to honor the Light of the world, who is soon to be born, and offer praise to God for the gift of Our Lady. As the Mass proceeds and sunrise approaches, the church becomes progressively brighter, illumined by the sun as our Faith is illumined by Christ. The readings and prayers of the Mass foretell the prophecy of the Virgin who would bear a Son called Emmanuel and call on all to raise the gates of their hearts and their societies to let Christ the King enter. Learn more in the article “The Rorate Caeli Mass: An Advent Tradition Honoring Our Lady” here on OnePeterFive.
Advent Wreath: The Advent wreath, which has German origins, is probably the most recognized Advent custom. It is a wreath made of evergreens that is often, but not necessarily, bound to a circle of wire. It symbolizes the many years from Adam to Christ in which the world awaited its Redeemer; it also represents the years that we have awaited His Final Coming in glory. The wreath holds four equally spaced candles, the three purple ones lit on the “penitential” Sundays and a pink one for Gaudete, the joyful third Sunday in Advent. The traditional blessing of an Advent wreath and the weekly prayers for the Advent wreath lighting, can be found online.
Jesse Tree & Advent Calendar: The Jesse tree depicts Christ’s ancestry through symbols and relates Scripture to salvation history, progressing from creation to the birth of Christ. See Fish Eaters for more information on making one as a family. These often coincide with Advent calendars which also can help us count down the days to Christmas.
Shoes Filled with Candy on St. Nicholas’ Day: The feast of St. Nicholas is on Dec. 6th and it is a highlight of the Advent season. St. Nicholas was from the 4th Century and was Bishop of Myra. The many churches built to honor him and the stories about him are all testimonials to his holiness. St. Nicholas is best remembered for his compassion towards the poor. Born at Patara in Lycia, a province of Asia Minor, he became bishop of Myra and became known for his zeal and piety. He was present at the Council of Nicaea and condemned the heresy of Arianism. In one story, St. Nicholas saved three unjustly incarcerated officers one time, and at another time, he saved three boys from death. St. Nicholas helped one man, who couldn’t pay the dowries for his three daughters by throwing gold through the window of the home. He did it several times and each was done secretly until the last time when he threw the gold in the home. The man inside saw him and was overjoyed in thanking him. Have your children leave their shoes by the door the evening of December 5th and fill them with candy so when they awake they will see the fruits of St. Nicholas’ charity!
Fasting on the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception: For those not already fasting throughout Advent, December 7th is an ideal day to fast (on years when it does not fall on a Sunday). On July 25, 1957, Pope Pius XII transferred the fast in the Universal Church from the Vigil of the Assumption (i.e., August 14th) to the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception (i.e., December 7), even though he had previously abrogated the Mass for the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception. Thus, this day starting in 1957 was a day of mandatory fasting and abstinence. This is preserved in the laws in force in 1962 for instance. Fasting helps prepare us to celebrate the one Holy Day of Obligation during Advent: The Immaculate Conception. Originally referred to as the “Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” December 8th became a Holy Day of Obligation in 1708 under Pope Clement XI, nearly 150 years before Pope Pius IX dogmatically and infallibly defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
Ember Days: Although the observation of Ember Days is no longer mentioned in mainstream Catholicism following the changes in the 1960s to fasting, they can – and should – still be observed by the faithful. Ember Days are set aside to pray and offer thanksgiving for a good harvest and God’s blessings. If you are in good health, fast on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday immediately following the Feast of St. Lucy on December 13th.
St. Lucy: Beyond her patronage for those suffering from ailments of the eyes, those of Swedish and Italian descent have a particular reason to celebrate her feastday on December 13th. Fish Eaters writes,
Her name, ‘Lucia,’ means ‘Light,’ and light plays a role in the customs of her Feast Day. In Italy, torchlight processions and bonfires mark her day, and bowls of a cooked wheat porridge known as cuccia is eaten because, during a famine, the people of Syracuse invoked St. Lucy, who interceded by sending a ship laden with grain (much as St. Joseph also did for the people of Sicily)…
Some of the loveliest St. Lucy’s Day customs are Swedish: in Sweden, the oldest daughter of a family will wake up before dawn on St. Lucy’s Day and dress in a white gown for purity, often with a red sash as a sign of martyrdom. On her head she will wear a wreath of greenery and lit candles, and she is often accompanied by ‘starboys,’ her small brothers who are dressed in white gowns and cone-shaped hats that are decorated with gold stars, and carrying star-tipped wands. ‘St. Lucy’ will go around her house and wake up her family to serve them special St. Lucy Day foods, such as saffron buns and Lussekatter (St. Lucy’s Cats), shaped into X’s, figure-8s, S-shapes, or crowns.
These connections to the liturgical year help families live out the faith and teach the importance of imitating the virtues of the saints like the purity of St. Lucy which is surely needed in our modern society.
O Antiphons: The O Antiphons are a series of antiphons to the Magnificat, which are prayed as part of Vespers (evening prayer) from December 17th – 23rd inclusive. Each of the titles of the O Antiphons addresses Jesus with a special title given to the Messiah and refers to a prophecy from the Prophet Isaiah. It is unknown when the O Antiphons started, however, there is mention of them as far back as the 400s AD. They are often called the Great Antiphons too. Even if you do not usually pray Vespers each day, take time to listen to the ancient O Antiphons chanted.
Novenas: While any time of year is appropriate to pray a Novena, Advent has a rich connection to several important ones that are worth praying every year as a family. Novenas are prayed for nine days in a row, usually before the beginning a feast. During Advent, we pray the Christmas Novena from December 16 – December 24th and the Novena in preparation for the Immaculate Conception from November 29 through December 7th. Yet even more popular than both of these is the St. Andrew’s Christmas Novena which is prayed 15 times a day from November 30th until Christmas. Incorporate this one in your family prayers after the nightly Rosary.
The Nativity Scene: Putting out the Nativity scene is an excellent way to teach children the story of Christmas. In Advent, the three wisemen should be stationed far away from the central figures of Mary and Joseph. And the Baby Jesus too should not be displayed yet. As Advent unfolds, day by day have someone – ideally a small child – in your family move the wisemen closer to the Holy Family. On Christmas Eve, put the Baby Jesus in the manger and say the traditional family prayer to bless the Nativity scene. Keep advancing the wisemen until January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, when they finally arrive to adore the newborn King. Children should know the difference between Christmas and the Epiphany and understand the 12 Days of Christmas are those between the two feasts – not the 12 days leading up to Christmas.
Christmas Baking: A few days before Christmas, baking usually begins for Christmas. While we are then still in a period of penance, the day will soon dawn when the Lord will be born to us, and we will celebrate with a feast. In an age where family time is often distracted or completely lacking, spending time these days together in the kitchen can help forge lasting memories. Many people have fond memories baking with their parents or grandparents, and these memories can last a lifetime.
Christmas Eve: Christmas Eve is the final day in the Advent season, and it is one of fasting (for those aged 21 to 60) and abstinence (for those over age 7), following the traditional requirements. Christmas Eve has been a vigil of fasting and abstinence for centuries. In fact, even when various groups or nations were exempted from various fast days, the Vigil of our Lord’s Nativity virtually always remained. Sadly, this Vigil ceased being a day of fasting in the modern Catholic Church following the changes in 1966. Yet, Traditional Catholics continue to keep this day as a day of fasting and abstinence, as our forefathers in the Faith did for centuries. However, in one unique exception, the Church has for centuries permitted a double collation on this one particular fasting day on account of this day being a “joyful fast.” This underscores the sentiments of joy that should permeate the Catholic home on this final day of Advent.
Feast of the Seven Fishes: One particularly notable custom for observing Christmas Eve abstinence is the Italian custom of the Feast of Seven Fishes, on account of the abstinence on Christmas Eve. Many Italian families will customarily have a dinner of seven fishes in honor of the seven Sacraments and the seven days of Creation. For families who are accustomed to spending the evening together in a family meal before attending midnight Mass, look up appropriate recipes in keeping with this tradition. For larger families, twelve kinds of fish may be eaten, in honor of the twelve apostles. And for smaller families, either three kinds of fish (in honor of the Trinity) or five kinds (in honor of the Five Wounds of Christ) may be used instead. In all of these variations, the meal remains meatless and ends the day’s fast.
Blessing of the Christmas Tree: More and more frequently families are blessing their Christmas trees. It is good to remind children that “the tree” relates to many aspects of our faith. For example, we are reminded that our first parents were not allowed to eat from one tree and that Christ paid the great price for our redemption by hanging on a tree (cf. Acts 5:29-32). The Traditional Blessing for a Christmas Tree is quite beautifully said on Christmas Eve as we finally transition from the penance and preparation of Advent to the joy of Christmastide.
Matthew Plese is a Third Order Dominican who resides in Chicago, IL. Matthew is a practicing Certified Public Accountant and Catechist. He is the President of CatechismClass.com, an online based organization whose mission is to make the best in Catholic religious education and Sacramental preparation available for those who need it. Matthew writes a monthly piece on apologetics and catechesis for Catholic Family News and a weekly column for the Fatima Center. He is also the author of Catholic Book Summaries: 54 Traditional and Contemporary Classics; Eschatology: The Catholic Study of the Four Last Things; and Understanding the Precepts of the Church. He also blogs at A Catholic Life.