Advent Customs

Compiled from "Externals of the Catholic Church", "Catholic Miscellany" and other sources


For several centuries the season of Advent was not even celebrated in the Church. A canon of a Council of Saragossa in 380 A.D. forbade the faithful from missing church services during the three weeks from December 17th to the Epiphany. This is most likely the first account of the season of Advent in the Church. Beginning in the year 650 A.D., we see the first celebrations of Advent in Spain but for a period which included 5 Sundays. It entailed the practices of fasting, abstinence, prayer and penance, first quite strictly then later lessened. By the ninth century the time for Advent was fixed to the time we observe today consisting of only 4 Sundays. The 4 Sundays represent the 4000 years the faithful waited for the coming of the Messiah. It is a time for penitential preparation of the soul for the proper and worthy celebration of the feast of Christmas. Several customs for the Advent Season have developed over the years.

The Advent Wreath

The Advent wreath is probably one of the most common customs of the season. Ironically, the evergreens of the wreath finds its origin first in the paganism of Northern Europe. Eventually, the Lutherans of Eastern Germany evolved the symbol into one of Christian significance. The evergreens were shaped into a wheel representing the eternal victory over death through Our Lord, while the evergreens themselves symbolized the faithfulness of God to his people. The candles of the wreath are a reminder of the light of Christ brought into the world and four in number to mark the four Sundays of Advent.

In the history of Catholicism before Vatican II, there were no prescribed blessings for Advent wreaths. Although German Catholics may have used them in their homes, they were not used in the Church. We find Advent wreath blessings as part of the liturgy following the inception of the Novus Ordo Missae.

The Advent Calendar

The Advent calendar originated in Germany and Scandinavia in Protestant circles in the 19th century. The first Advent calendars were made by drawing chalk lines for each day in December. Other early styles were the Adventclock or the Adventcandle - a candle for the 24 days until Christmas. With the invention of printing, the calendars became pictures affixed to cardboard as early as 1908. Their popularity dissappeared during World War II and didn't surface again till 1946 in the version we know today. These consists in the opening of doors, one for each day of December leading up to Christmas. Sometimes it is a picture of a house with windows which open; othertimes, it is a picture of a typical Christmas scene. Usually the pictures beneath the doors are of toys or Christmas scenes with the last and largest picture on December 25th being that of the Nativity scene.

The Jesse Tree

The Jesse Tree, most popular during the 13th century, is famously depicted in art in the stained glass windows of the churches in Wells and Chartres and seems to be the only Catholic historic account of it's use.

It is named after a scripture verse from the Old Testament:

"And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root." - Isa. 11:1 Douay-Rheims

It is hard to ascertain when and by whom the Advent tradition developed. It is thought to be a Christian attempt to avoid the display of Christmas trees in churches due to the pagan origins of the evergreen symbol, and the Catholic Church was known to discourage the use of Christmas trees. In Europe and early America, it was customary to hang symbolic ornaments of Messianic prophecies on Christmas trees. This appears to be a Protestant version of the Jesse Tree. The Catholic practice entails displaying the lineage of Christ from the father of David, Jesse, by use of scripture readings and symbols. Nevertheless, the originator of the Advent Jesse Tree remains a mystery, although the Jesse Tree itself is Catholic.

O' Antiphon's

It was the custom in the church to sing at Vespers, from December 17th up to Christmas Eve, the O's of Advent. They are all addressed to Christ and praise the coming of the Saviour in symbolic language taken from the Old Testament. They date back to perhaps as early as the 6th century. Each family should make the practice of reciting these O's to increase the spirit of desire in the soul.

December 17: O Wisdom, Who came forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end, arranging all things with might and sweetness, come and teach us the way of prudence.

December 18: O Lord and Leader of the house of Israel, Who appeared to Moses in the flame of the burning bush and gave him the Law of Sinai, come and redeem us with Thy outstretched arms.

December 19: O Root of Jesse, Who stands for an ensign for the people, before Whom all kings shall keep silence and to Whom the nations will make their supplications, come to deliver us and delay not!

December 20: O Key of David and Scepter of the House of Israel, Who opens and no one closes, Who closes and no one opens, Come and bring forth from the prison the captive who is sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death.

December 21: O Dawn, the Brightness of eternal light and the Sun of Justice, come and enlighten those sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death.

December 22: O King of Nations and He Who they longed for, the Cornerstone which makes both one, come and save man whom Thou didst form out of the dust of the earth.

December 23: O Emmanuel, God with us, King and Lawgiver, the Expected of the nations and their Saviour, come to save us, O Lord our God.

Christmas Novena

The earliest ecclesiastical novena of record is the Christmas novena, which commemorates the nine months during which the Christ-Child was carried in His mother's womb. It begins on December 16th and ends on December 24th.

December 16: O God and Saviour of our souls, sweet Infant Jesus, Whom the angels and shepherd adored in the stable of Bethlehem on that holy night when thou wert born of the Virgin Mary, we offer Thee our profound adoration and our most earnest thanksgiving for having become man for our redemption and salvation; grant that we may apply all our powers to fulfill Thy gracious designs, that we may become perfectly renewed in heart and inflamed with Thy holy love.
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be....Sweet Jesus, be my love.

December 17: O merciful Redeemer, Who didst vouchsafe to remain in the chaste cloister of Mary's womb, hidden and unknown, though Thou wast the Eternal Word, and the wisdom of the Father; grant that we may learn from Thee to love solitude and silence, and escape the evils that are found in the tumult and distractions of the world; grant us greater purity of mind and heart; grant that we may glorify Thee, and edify others by our purity and modesty.
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be....Sweet Jesus, be my love.

December 18: O Infant God, Who, from the moment of Thy conception in holy Mary's womb, didst offer Thyself to Thine eternal Father for the salvation of our souls, vouchsafe to give us a lively sense of the one thing necessary, so that we may labor zealously for others, and work out our own salvation in fear and trembling, yet with confidence in Thy love.
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be....Sweet Jesus, be my love.

December 19: O sweetest Jesus, Who didst go up to Bethlehem in the womb of Mary, to obey the commands of Caesar, who had ordered all his subjects to be enrolled; grant us grace to obey with alacrity the most arduous commands from those who hold place over us.
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be....Sweet Jesus, be my love.

December 20: O most adorable Jesus, Who, upon Thy arrival at Bethlehem,wast rejected by all men; grant us to follow Thy example in sufferings and contempt, that we may welcome Thee joyfully into our hearts, when Thou seekest an entrance there, wither by holy inspirations or by Thy divine Sacraments.
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be....Sweet Jesus, be my love.

December 21: O Divine Infant, Who, when excluded from Bethlehem, didst inspire Thy holy Mother to retire top a poor and wretched stable, in which obscure and humble place it was Thy will to be born, in order to confound our pride, and to teach us humility. O grant that henceforward, conforming ourselves to Thy will, we may renounce all pomp and pride, and become truly meek and humble of heart.
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be....Sweet Jesus, be my love.

December 22: O Divine Word, Who for the love of all of us, Thy poor creatures, wast pleased to be born under the most lowly roof, to be wrapped in the meanest swaddling-bands, and to be laid in a vile manger, amongst beasts, and to suffer a thousand evils. O grant that we also may renounce all worldly vanities, and embrace poverty of spirit, and mortification of the flesh so necessary for our perfection. Grant that we may be thoroughly detached from creatures, and poor in all things save in Thy love and Thy grace.
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be....Sweet Jesus, be my love.

December 23: O Divine Saviour, O King of peace, who wast pleased to make Thy appearance amongst us when the whole world was in peace; vouchsafe to send us Thy peace, so that all our powers being brought into subjection to Thee, Thou mayest at the approaching solemnity to be born anew in our souls.
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be....Sweet Jesus, be my love.

December 24: O Divine Saviour, O King Immortal glory, who in Thy great mercy, didst come into the world to redeem us and to make us holy; grant that, denying all ungodliness and love of this world, we may live soberly in ourselves, justly toward our neighbor, and piously before Thee, that so we may be happy with Thee for all eternity.
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be....Sweet Jesus, be my love.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

This is a Latin hymn from the 9th century which was translated to English by John Mason Neale in the 19th century.

O come, o come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

REFRAIN
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
Who ord'rest all things mightily;
To us the path of Knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.
Refrain

O come, o come, thou Lord of Might,
Who to thy tribes on Sinai's height
In ancient times did give thy Law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Refrain

O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny;
From depths of hell thy people save,
And give them victory o'er the grave.
Refrain

O come, thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Refrain

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Refrain

O come, Desire of Nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid thou our sad divisions cease,
And be thyself our King of Peace.
Refrain

Conclusion

We must remember Advent is a time to "Wait, Watch and Prepare" for the coming of Christ. It is filled with beautiful traditions which are totally Catholic. Although certain aspects of this time of year are distracting (the secular, premature celebration of Christmas), traditional Catholics should try to maintain the customs of our faith. Catholics must also remember, when using the Protestant originated customs of Advent, how Protestants ignored the feast of "Christ's Mass," calling the season"Fooltide" rather than "Yuletide." One may want to reconsider the importance of the Advent wreath and Advent calendar by giving greater attention to the Catholic practices of the Jesse tree, the O' Antiphons, the Christmas Novena, and the hymns of Advent.


Salve Regina Catholic Books