My dear friends,
Advent is a wonderful time, isn’t it? We have the opportunity to prepare for the great joy of Jesus Christ being born into the world with the rest of the Catholic Church. Growing up my family had certain traditions that we did for “the season of Christmas,” which was actually the season of Advent. We would put up the Christmas tree and all the Christmas decorations the day after Thanksgiving. Our home would be filled with Christmas music, Christmas movies, hearty meals, cookies, candy canes, smooth and melty petite mints, and peppermint Christmas Nougats. At school there would be never ending Christmas plays, parties, and activities. We would go to store after store to shop until everyone we knew had at least something we could give to them. It was as if the entire month of December had become a Christmas celebration. Then after December 25th it all suddenly ended. We put away our Christmas decorations, music, and treats. No more parties, plays, activities… nothing. It seemed as if suddenly we were left in the lonely bitter cold not realizing our Savior had been born into the world on Christmas day.
I started to wonder, is this how Advent and Christmas is suppose to go? How am I as a Catholic suppose to participate in Advent and Christmas? How can I truly receive Christ, the Light of the world, into my heart on Christmas day and share the Light of Christ with others? This “holiday” season is left lonely and empty without Jesus Christ who humbled Himself to dwell among us. Who loves us so deeply and profoundly, yet we seem to be cold-hearted to His great love.
As I prayed more about the meaning of Advent an interesting thought came to my mind. Imagine one of your close friends is expecting a baby. After speaking with her you both plan for her to come visit you the day her baby is born. She will stay with you for about two weeks since you have not seen her during her entire pregnancy. The entire month before she visits you and your family are celebrating with food, decorations, music, movies, the whole shebang. Then the day she arrives with her newborn baby you open gifts with her, celebrate, and care for her. Then for the rest of the time your friend and newborn baby are staying with you, you are busy putting everything away and cleaning. No more caring for your friend and her newborn baby, in fact you ignore her the rest of the time she is with you. This simply does not make sense, but this is how our culture celebrates Christmas!
As a Catholic family my husband and I desire to raise our children with a deep knowledge and love of their Catholic faith. Our Catholic Church has beautiful, rich, and lasting traditions, which we desire to bring home with us in some way to educate our children and to grow in love as a family. Now in order to gift our Catholic faith to our children Adam and I must constantly humble ourselves before God that He would first teach us. With this desire in my own heart to learn more about my faith and grow in love, I reached out to some friends asking them what has helped them to prepare best for Christmas during the season of Advent. They gave me some amazing responses! I myself also began to look deeper into the meaning of Advent and the purpose of this liturgical season, along with the Catholic traditions that accompany Advent. I found that Advent is a beautiful time of preparation and quite frankly is rather opposite of how we celebrate this season within our culture. December 25th is the first day of Christmas and when our Christmas celebrations should begin! Growing up it was almost as if I was celebrating Christ being born before His actual day of birth. Even on His birthday I was more concerned about the presents I would receive than anything else!
The word Advent comes from the Latin “ad-venire,” which means “to come to.” This liturgical season includes the four Sundays and the weekdays between them leading up to Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ. This year Advent begins on December 2nd and ends on Christmas Eve, December 24th. This time of Advent is meant to be quiet and still as we wait in anticipation for the arrival of our Savior. It is also suppose to be a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as we prepare and long for Christ’s birth. With all this in mind Advent can still be enjoyable, exciting, and joyful, but we must remember that this joy is in anticipation for Christmas when our Savior is actually born.
As I continued to discover more about the traditions of Advent I stumbled upon a wonderful book called, The Catholic All Year Compendium: Liturgical Living for Real Life by Kendra Tierney. I have only just begun reading it, but there were a few quotes that stood out to me. Here are a few of them:
“The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) is a book of rules and instruction governing how Mass is to be celebrated in just about every possible circumstance. It doesn’t specifically apply to our homes, but it does give us an understanding of how the Church hopes that we, the faithful, will observe and experience the various liturgical seasons. It tells us, ‘During Advent the floral decoration of the altar should be marked by moderation suited to the character of this season, without expressing prematurely the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord.’ … We wait on the Christmas stuff because it creates in all of us a feeling of excitement and expectation and longing – not just for presents, but for the great event” (pg 26).
“Just as the GIRM calls for sparsely decorated churches during Advent, it also says that church music should be ‘consistent with the season’s character’ and should not ‘anticipate the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord’” (pgs 27-28).
“It’s also good to remember that there is a strong preference (but not an official mandate) in various Church documents for the use of natural rather than artificial materials for religious purposes whenever possible. “Fake” greenery and “fake” candles are not ideal for use in a sacramental. ‘Human minds and hearts are stimulated by the sounds, sights, and fragrances of liturgical seasons, which combine to create powerful, lasting impressions of the rich and abundant graces unique to each of the seasons'” (pg 36).
This is good to keep in mind when it comes to celebrating Advent and Christmas within our own homes! As Adam and I begin to incorporate more traditions for our family this Advent season we will certainly be keeping these things in mind. There are many different ways to partake in the season of Advent. It is good to keep in mind that there is no “one size fits all” and you can discover what works best for your family. Here are some of the Advent traditions that I found, which can accompany your preparation for Christmas:
A special thank you to all of my friends who sent me what has helped them to prepare best for Christmas during the season of Advent!
Prayer, Mass, and Scripture
- Prayer should be the summit of the traditions we do together as a family even during the season of Advent. With everything we do we need to begin with prayer. Without prayer then all our human efforts will be fruitless.
- Praying with the Scriptures daily is a great way to prepare our hearts for the birth of Jesus Christ. Our Holy Mother Church has set up her daily readings to coincide with the liturgical season we are in. This means that as long as we are reading and meditating on the daily Scripture readings we will also be preparing through God’s Word for Advent!
- Two great resources for the daily readings are the USCCB website and Blessed is She (for women). You can subscribe to either and receive the daily readings to your email each day! Otherwise you can sign up to receive the Magnificat, which contains the daily readings in paper form along with some beautiful reflections.
- We cannot forget that Mass is a wonderful way to prepare for Christ’s birth as well. At Mass we are given the opportunity to give Christ all our sacrifices, sufferings, joys, hearts, selves… everything. In return He gives Himself to us out of His great love!
Fasting and Almsgiving
- The Catholic Church certainly knows that fasting is no stranger during the season of Advent as countercultural as this may seem. Although fasting is not obligatory during the season of Advent, traditionally it was a time for us to take part in penitential practices like fasting and abstinence.
- After reading this article – Fasting for Advent and this article – What ever became of Advent fasting and penance? it really stirred something within my heart. I don’t think that we can truly feast unless we fast, otherwise the feast is just another meal. If we are eating plenty of Christmas cookies, sweets, snacks, and overindulgent meals the entire season of Advent then would the feast on Christmas day be just another meal? Would the Christmas feast contain the same significance if we were fasting during the season of Advent? What about our own hearts? Preparing for Advent with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is an excellent way for us to prepare for the birth of our Savior at Christmas. I know this may seem difficult during Advent with all the goodies around, but just as we prepare for Easter during Lent we can prepare for Christmas during Advent. If you have never fasted during the season of Advent, yet you desire to then you can start off with small sacrifices. These small sacrifices are still great in the eyes of God as long as our intentions and love is pure.
- Some small sacrifices may include: giving up sweets, alcohol, coffee, or any food item that would be a sacrifice for you. Think about something you may give up during Lent and this could be a good practice to try during the season of Advent. I myself plan to give up something for the first time this season of Advent. I have never fasted during Advent, but I desire to prepare my home and heart for the birth of Christ in a new and different way this year.
- Almsgiving has always been a focus in preparation for Christmas. To give to someone in need is a great way to prepare our homes and hearts for Christ. Maybe try giving something away that you treasure knowing that it will mean something more to someone who has much less than you do. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” Matthew 6:19-21.
“Fasting produces in us one further effect that is not often discussed, and it is one that points to the essence of Advent – longing. When we fast, our bodies clamor for what we have willingly forsaken, be it food, comfort, entertainment, or other goods. Rather than respond with indulgence, we can respond with prayer: ‘Lord hasten to fill the emptiness within me this Christmas, as I know only you can fully satisfy the longings of my soul.’ With an empty stomach and an expectant heart, the age-old prayer of Israel – O come, O come, Emmanuel – rings with new poignancy and vigor” David G. Bonagura, Jr. from the article Fasting for Advent.
- An Advent wreath includes a wreath, three purple candles, one rose candle, and one white candle. Each item of the Advent wreath actually has a special symbolic meaning to it. The circle of the wreath represents the Eternity of God, the evergreen plants represent life or immortality, the candles represent Christ as the Light of the world, the four candles correspond with the four weeks of Advent, the three purple candles represent prayer, penance, and preparation, and the rose candle represents rejoicing.
- Starting on the first Sunday of Advent the first purple candle of the Advent wreath is lit. Each Sunday of Advent another candle receives its light. The second and fourth Sundays of Advent another purple candle is lit. The rose candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent. This candle is rose because it represents rejoicing because we have reached the halfway point of Advent. We are closer to Christmas than we were at the beginning on the third Sunday of Advent. For the Catholics of old the third Sunday of Advent was a great time of rejoicing because it was a day of rest from all their fasting and sacrifices. For this reason the third Sunday in particular is called “Gaudete Sunday,” gaudete meaning “rejoice” in Latin. The four Advent candles are traditionally replaced by the white candle on Christmas Eve. This white candle is then used for the rest of the Christmas season. Each evening during either dinner or prayer we light the candles with the corresponding week we are in of Advent. This year we will be using real candles and real greenery for our wreath! Of course we will not leave our wreath unattended and we only plan to light it during dinner and/or our evening prayer time.
- Here is a short video explaining the meaning of the Advent wreath.
St. Andrew Novena
- Beginning on the Feast of St. Andrew (November 30th) and ending on Christmas Eve, the St. Andrew Novena is prayed. It is not technically a novena (a prayer prayed 9 days in a row), but it is a wonderful tradition. The prayer is traditionally recited 15 times per day. This may seem daunting, but it can be done. You could break the 15 prayer recitations up and pray three in the morning, three at breakfast, three at lunch, three at dinner, and three before bed. Otherwise it could be added to your family morning prayers, night prayers, or Rosary.
- Here is the prayer:
“Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold. In that hour vouchsafe, I beseech Thee, O my God, to hear my prayer and grant my desires, [here mention your request] through the merits of Our Savior Jesus Christ and of His Blessed Mother. Amen”
- If you prefer to use a prayer card this St. Andrew Novena Prayer Card would work well.
- We begin with an empty manger as Joseph and Mary make their way to Bethlehem. Throughout Advent additional characters are added, usually animals. As Christmas day gets closer Joseph and Mary then gaze upon an empty manger in anticipation for the arrival of Jesus. On Christmas day we add Jesus into the manger along with an angel. Over the following days of Christmas the three wise men make their journey to the Nativity scene and arrive on the Epiphany. As the scene of the Nativity changes during Advent and Christmas we accompany it with the corresponding Scripture readings. That way we really understand what is going on in our Nativity scene. It is also a great way to teach children about the significance of the Nativity of our Lord.
The Jesse Tree
- The Jesse tree is a tradition in which a Christmas tree is decorated with ornaments relating to the events leading up to Christ’s birth. The name Jesse tree comes from Isaiah 11:1, “A shoot shall come out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Jesse was the father of King David. It is a neat tradition because the ornaments of the Jesse tree represent people, prophesies, and events of the Old Testament leading up to the birth of Jesus. The Jewish people waited four thousand years before the birth of the Messiah. They relied on the faithfulness of God and trusted in His timing.
- I believe that there are many different ways to partake in the Jesse Tree tradition. You don’t only have to do the Jesse Tree with ornaments. Make it work for your family and get creative!
- Here is a wonderful resource which includes more information about the Jesse tree along with the Jesse tree daily readings.
- This book includes wonderful information on the Jesse tree along with the Jesse tree readings for each day of Advent. It also breaks the daily reading into children’s readings and adult readings, which I really like.
- You could certainly make your own ornaments for your Jesse tree, which would be a fun activity for children. I know some people really like these Jesse tree ornaments from Etsy, which match to the symbols from the Jesse Tree book mentioned above.
- Alternatively you could just read the readings from the Jesse tree book to your family each day.
- Another option would be this sticker Jesse tree option, which is also a less expensive option. It could be used as an Advent calendar as well if you wrote the numbers for each day on the tree. Our family will be using the sticker option along with the book this year.
- The Christmas Novena is prayed each day from December 16-24. The novena is taken from readings of the Old Testament and the Psalms. The structure of the novena includes opening responsory prayers, a Psalm, Scripture reading, the Magnificat with the daily antiphon, and a closing prayer. The novena is prayed along with the O Antiphons, which is a beautiful tradition and our next tradition we will be discussing.
- Here is the traditional Christmas Novena, which was written in 1721 by Rev. Charles Vachetta, C.M.
- The O Antiphons (or Great Antiphons) are a monastic tradition, which dates back to the 4th century. During the final days of Advent (December 17-24) something special occurs within the prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours. Within the evening prayers (vespers) the antiphons are recited. The antiphons are recited before and after the Canticle of Mary, the Magnificat. Each antiphon has a great significance. The antiphons all begin with “O” and give Jesus a unique title, which all come from the prophecies of Isaiah.
- December 17: Sapientia = Wisdom
- December 18: Adonai = Almighty God
- December 19: Radix Jesse = Root of Jesse
- December 20: Clavis David = Key of David
- December 21: Oriens = Radiant Dawn
- December 22: Rex Gentium = King of the Nations
- December 23: Emmanuel = God with us
- The first letter to each of these titles, when read backwards, form the Latin words “ero cras,” which means “tomorrow I come.”
- O Antiphons playlist – please take some time to listen to these beautiful “O Antiphons!”
Straw in the Manger
- This is a fun tradition to do with children. Straw in the Manger is a French Advent tradition of preparing a manger for Jesus on Christmas day. The idea is that we want the manger to be soft and comfortable for baby Jesus. Each time that someone in the family performs an act of devotion, a good work, or a sacrifice they are able to place a piece of straw (or yarn) into the manger. The manger is suppose to symbolize our hearts and how we are to prepare our hearts for Christ’s birth. Since Advent is a penitential season it helps us to remember that these acts do not only prepare the manger, but our hearts as well.
- I found this to be a great resource when discovering more about the Straw in the Manger Advent Tradition.
“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” (Francis Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, 1958).
- An Advent calendar helps with the anticipation of Christmas. I am sure as a child you made the green and red Christmas links to break off each day as Christmas gets closer and closer. This is the same idea. You could get creative and create your own Advent calendar as well.
- Here is one option for an Advent Calendar that I really like. I got it for only $5 and I was pleasantly surprised when I received it! It is well made and has little story books for each day of Advent. After reading the little story book you can even hang them on your Christmas tree!
Dynamic Catholic – Best Advent Ever
- Although I have not used the Best Advent Ever by Dynamic Catholic, I have heard wonderful things about it. “It’s a free email program that will help you slow down and focus on what matters most during this busy season. You’ll experience Advent in a whole new way—leading to the best Christmas of your life!” Check it out and learn more for yourself!
- Advent at Ephesus
- Music List from The Catholic Lectionary Website
- Some of my favorite Advent CD’s and songs:
- Advent at Ephesus (CD by Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles)
- The Advent of Christmas (new CD by Matt Maher)
- Advent Carols from St. John’s (CD by the Choir of St. John’s College)
- O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
- Rorate Caeli
- Alma Redemptoris Mater
- Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus
- Waiting in Silence
- Creator of the Stars at Night
- O Come, Divine Messiah
- Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming
- Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent
- The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came
- There are many great books to read that can help prepare us for Christmas. I will be creating a separate blog post for Advent Reading in the near future!
I hope that these Advent traditions help you to prepare for Christmas not only within your home, but within your heart as well. I am greatly looking forward to trying out a few of these traditions as a family this year. I have found that when I prepare well during Advent and Lent then I am much more disposed within my own heart to truly celebrate Christmas and Easter. Are there any Advent traditions that you do that weren’t listed above? What are some of your favorite Advent traditions? I would love to hear how you prepare for Christmas during the season of Advent.