How to Observe Advent the Catholic Way

Origins of Advent

As a season, Advent is quite ancient. The season itself went through slow development, taking form in the 4th century and reaching a definite form in Rome by the 6th century.[1] 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. At one time, it started earlier (around November 11) because it was fashioned after Lent. This starting date gave the season forty days. Yet in some areas many centuries ago, it was even longer and began sooner. An advent beginning in September formed the basis of the monastic fast. By the 6th – 7th centuries the number had been fixed as a span of four Sundays. The texts in the 1962 Missal preserve most of the ancient Masses of this season.

In his history of Advent, Dom Prosper Guéranger notes 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.”

Practices to Observe for a Catholic 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 nowbeforewe appropriately celebrate Christmas 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.

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 four-thousand years from Adam to Christ in which the world awaited its Redeemer (one candle per millennia). 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. Many Catholic families will have an Advent wreath in their home. The traditional blessing of an Advent wreath and the weekly prayers for the Advent wreath lighting, can be found online.

Jesse Tree and 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 website 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. Saint Nicholas was Bishop of Myra (in present day Turkey) in the 4th century. The many churches built to honor him and the stories recalling his miraculous deeds are all testimonials to his great holiness. Saint Nicholas is best remembered for his compassion towards the poor. Born at Patara in Lycia, a province of Asia Minor, he was renowned for his zeal and piety. He was present at the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) as one of the confessors (those who had suffered for witnessing to the Faith) and he vigorously fought against the Arian heresy.

In one story, St. Nicholas saved three unjustly incarcerated officers one time, and at another time, he saved three boys from death. Saint 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. On the third and last occasion, the father of the brides saw him and, overjoyed, thanked 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 14) 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, starting in 1957, this day 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 Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Originally referred to as the “Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” December 8thbecame 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: Ember Days are set aside to pray and offer thanksgiving for a good harvest and God’s blessings. They are also days in which we pray for pregnant women and those who long to be with child. As per tradition, Ember Saturdays were the days on which men were ordained to the priesthood and all the Ember days are ideally suited for praying for vocations. If you are in good health, fast on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday immediately following the Feast of St. Lucy on December 13th.

“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 400’s AD. They are often called the Greater Antiphons. Even if you do not usually pray Vespers each day, take time to listen to the ancient “O” Antiphons being chanted.

Novenas: While any time of the 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 a feast day. During Advent, we pray the Christmas Novena from December 16 – December 24thand 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 for 25 days (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. During Advent, the three wise men 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.

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.



[1] It is important to note that when such statements are asserted, they are based on extant written records. This means that a liturgical tradition surely predates the given dates. In the ancient world it would simply have been unheard of to establish a tradition by written means. Rather, a tradition would have existed and decades – or even centuries – later someone would have written about it or passed legislation on it. Moreover, many ancient records have not been preserved. So, it is very likely that the written documents which survive today were not even the first instance that a particular liturgical tradition would have been codified (written) in an ecclesial record.

It is important to keep these facts in mind. Otherwise, it is easy to fall into the error of accepting the claim that Advent was “invented” in the fourth century and that a more “pure” form of Christianity would be Advent-less. Such fallacious arguments are frequently put forward by Protestants, modernists, and atheists. The simple truth is we don’t know when Advent began to be practiced. It could have been practiced by first-century Christians awaiting the Second Coming. What we know for certain, is that by the fourth century it was sufficiently well established that a written record of it has survived to our day.