Friday, December 10, 2021

Some Customs of Advent

Saint Francis’ Institution of the Crib at Greccio by Giotto di Bondone
The following article appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of The Latin Mass magazine; many thanks to the editors of TLM for allowing its publication here.

Advent, especially in the traditional 1962 calendar, is a curious season. It is the beginning of the liturgical year, and yet its first Gospel is about the end of the world. It marks a fresh start, and yet it opens by virtually repeating one of the readings from the Sunday before. [1] It is draped in the penitential color of violet yet is irrepressibly joyful. It awaits the coming of the Messiah, who already came two thousand years ago. During Mass, the Gloria and organ are suppressed and the Holy Name of Jesus is omitted from the Collects; but outside Mass, there are delicious treats and Yuletide drinks and caroling in the streets.

Liturgical scholars have explanations for these phenomena. [2] Among the Franks, they say, Advent was practically as austere as Lent in form and fasting, while in Rome it was gleefully celebrated with white vestments and the Gloria; the two eventually met in the middle. Advent’s propers, we are told, are a combination of historical happenstance and theological choice. And, yes, it is called Advent after the adventus or coming of Jesus Christ as an infant in Bethlehem, but the ritual remembrance of Our Lord’s first coming is meant to recall and even bring about two others: His coming into our hearts spiritually and His coming in judgment at history’s end. By truly absorbing the Nativity of the Son of God, we can be assured of the former and prepared for the latter.
Our interest today, however, is not in the origins of this brackish period but in the euryhaline creatures that live in it. Or to put it more plainly, what are the traditional customs of Advent and why do we have them? Let us begin with several customs that extend throughout the entire season and move to others on particular days. For the sake of brevity, we will save St. Nicholas’ Day for another year.
An Advent Wreath in Slovakia
Advent Wreath
Many Catholics are surprised to learn that the first Advent wreath or Advent crown was invented by sixteenth-century Lutherans in eastern Germany. The wreath as we know it today, however, did not take shape until a nineteenth-century German pastor, tired of answering children’s questions if Christmas was here yet, took an old cartwheel and attached to it twenty small red candles (symbolizing Saturday and weekdays) and four large white candles (the Sundays of Advent).
After it was simplified into the four-candle wreath with which we are now familiar, the custom spread to most Christian communities in Europe, Canada, and America, though not as fast as you might think: even into the 1940s it was virtually unknown in the United States. When the Von Trapp family (of Sound of Music fame) first arrived in America after escaping the Nazis, they asked where they could obtain materials for their Advent wreath and were met with blank stares. [3]
The custom itself is simple: a wreath made of evergreen is adorned with four candles equidistant from each other. The candles may be of any color: in some European countries they are white, in Germany they can be large and red, and in the U.S. they correspond to the liturgical colors of the four Sundays of Advent, three violet and one rose. The wreath can be suspended from the ceiling or placed in the center of a table. In a dark room, a violet candle is lit on the First Sunday of Advent, another on the Second, the rose candle on the Third (Gaudete Sunday), and the last candle on the Fourth Sunday.
Variations abound. One family places a large white “Christ candle” in the middle on Christmas Eve and lights it. Another removes the candles on Christmas Eve and converts their Advent wreath into a Christmas door wreath.
The symbolism of the Advent wreath is simple but effective. The wreath’s circular shape recalls the crown of Christ the King or the eternity of the Trinity and betokens the “fulfillment of time” that all three of His comings bring about. The evergreen is an ancient symbol of hope and everlasting life. And the candles represent the hearts of the elect burning for their Savior, as well as the prophets whose inspired words pierced the darkness in which mankind was enveloped while waiting for the Messiah.
Numerous recommendations notwithstanding [4], there is no formal ceremony for lighting the candles or for the prayers that are said around it; there is not even an official Roman formula for blessing the wreath. Catholic families can simply pray together for a holy preparation and a holy Christmas, concluding with a traditional Advent hymn.
The Advent wreath is sometimes the cause of controversy. Many parishes put one in the sanctuary and light it as if it were part of the action of the Mass. But according to rubricist Louis Tofari, the wreath is not a liturgical object and should not be treated as such; it a domestic custom, as domestic as hanging stockings by the chimney with care. [5] The wreath can, however, be placed outside the sanctuary and lit during Mass without offending pious eyes.
Richard Ernst Kepler, Im Lande des Christkinds
Advent Calendar
Another popular custom from nineteenth-century Lutheran Germany that creates a similar sense of anticipation is the Advent calendar. Advent calendars are usually colorful pieces of cardboard on which is depicted a many-windowed house. Behind the shutters of each house is a picture or symbol that points to the coming of Christmas. The children are allowed to open one shutter a day until finally, on December 24, the front door of the house is opened to reveal the Nativity.
Numerous variations of the Advent calendar exist, some of them amusingly gluttonous, with shutters concealing chocolate, candy, and even tiny bottles of whiskey. Out of practicality, most commercially-made Advent calendars begin on December 1 even though the date of the beginning of Advent varies from year to year. Home-made calendars, on the other hand, can be tailored to each new season.
Creche, Notre Dame de la Dalbade, France
The Crèche
The nativity scene or crèche arose out of ancient piety and the medieval theater. Christians were honoring the cave in Bethlehem where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born even before St. Helen built the Basilica of the Nativity over it around A.D. 330. Medieval mystery plays later reenacted the Nativity, but when they got out of hand Pope Honorius suppressed them.
A generation later, however, St. Francis of Assisi obtained papal permission to stage a live outdoor Nativity scene. On Christmas Eve 1223, in a cave in Greccio, Italy, the Saint had a manger set up with hay and a live ox and donkey. Then, during a Solemn High Mass, the holy deacon, his cheeks bathed in tears of joy, sang the Gospel and preached about the “Nativity of the poor King and the humble town of Bethlehem.” Francis’ idea caught on quickly throughout Western Christendom, first to churches and then to homes. Not even the Reformation, with its rejection of “graven images,” could dislodge some German sects from their nativity scenes: they would rather be bad Protestants than be bereft of their crèches. It was most likely they who brought the first nativity sets to the U.S.
There are a number of charming customs involving the crèche. One is not to place the Infant Jesus in the manger until Christmas morning or after Midnight Mass to heighten anticipation. Another is to have the family’s children “prepare” the manger by earning wisps of straw that can be used for the Infant Jesus’ bedding; they earn the straw by prayers or good works. This custom, which began long ago in France, effectively teaches children that the cultivation of virtue is the best way to prepare for the Lord’s coming.
Third, the figurines for the Three Kings can be placed at the opposite end of the room in which the crèche is kept. During Advent they can be moved a little closer (either with the help of the children or “miraculously” while they sleep) every day during Advent and the Twelve Days of Christmas until they arrive at their destination on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. A similar practice can be implemented with the figurines of Joseph and Mary to symbolize their journey from Galilee to Bethlehem.
Jesse Tree Window, Notre Dame de Paris
Jesse Tree
Although the Jesse Tree is a fairly recent custom, its roots go back (no pun intended) to the twelfth century, when elaborate family trees of Our Lord graced the stained-glass windows of great cathedrals like Our Lady of Chartres. The tree takes its name from King David’s father, Jesse of Bethlehem, and is inspired by Isaiah 11, 1, “there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root,” and by Isaiah 11, 10, “In that day the root of Jesse, who standeth for an ensign of the people, him the Gentiles shall beseech.” In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the genealogy of Jesus Christ is divided into three sets, fourteen generations apiece, and traditionally the Jesse tree roughly follows the last two sets, from the birth of David to the Babylonian captivity and from the captivity to the birth of the Savior (Matt. 1, 1-17).
The modern Jesse tree, which is little more than a generation old, can be a poster, a small bush (real or artificial), or a bare branch such as mesquite either wedged into a pot or fixed into the cross section of a log. On the tree are placed symbols of Christ’s ancestors, beginning with Jesse or even Adam. The decoration of the tree can take place gradually; one option for traditional Catholics is to begin it on the Second Sunday of Advent, the Epistle for which mentions the “root of Jesse.” Since Jesse stands as “an ensign of the people,” it is fitting to having this sign of his lineage bud forth on the Sunday that alludes to it.
It is also fitting to remember Christ’s ancestors during Advent given that the season signifies the time when the world waited for His first coming. Not coincidentally, the propers of Advent contain a magnificent procession of holy forebears—Jacob, Judah, Moses, David, Micah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Joel, Zechariah, Habakkuk, Hosea, Malachi, etc. [6]
Another option is to decorate the tree with symbols of Christ rather than His ancestors, especially the titles of Our Lord as they appear in the “O” antiphons of the Golden Nights (see below). These antiphons can be correlated with the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” by arranging the verses in chronological order, from the “Wisdom on High” in Genesis to “Emmanuel” in Isaiah. Beginning December 17, the family sings the appropriate verse of the hymn while the corresponding symbol is put on the tree; each night a new verse and a new symbol are added so that by December 23, the entire hymn is sung and all the symbols used. Depending on size variables, one can also place the Jesse tree in the middle of the Advent wreath and then replace it with the Christ candle on December 24 as a way of signifying how the figures have yielded to the reality: Et antiquum documentum / Novo cedat ritui.
Plum or Christmas Pudding
Plum Pudding
Anglicans and Episcopalians call the Sunday before Advent “Stir Up Sunday” and use the day to begin stirring up their Christmas or plum pudding (which takes weeks to mature properly). On the other hand, and for historical reasons that are unclear, Catholics call the First Sunday of Advent “Stir Up Sunday” and begin their puddings on that day. Both Sundays are appropriate insofar as each has a Collect that opens with the words “Stir up,” but it seems to me more fitting to begin preparing for Christmas in the season of Advent rather than before it. (And it is not too late to start one now.)
The process of making a traditional Christmas pudding has come to abound in allegory and harmless superstition. It should be stirred from East to West to commemorate the journey of the Magi; it should have thirteen ingredients in honor of Christ and His Apostles; and every member of the family and every guest should stir the pudding while secretly making a wish. The stirring represents the arousal of our hearts for the Lord’s coming, while the richness of the pudding represents the good things that He brings with Him from Heaven. There is even a little poem to accompany the task: 
Stir up, we beseech thee,
The pudding in the pot;
And when we get home
We’ll eat the lot. [7]
Christmas pudding may also include any number of good luck tokens, such as a coin for prosperity, a thimble for luck (or another year of spinsterhood!), a button for another year of bachelorhood, and a ring for marriage, with each of these blessings going to the person who finds the relevant object in their piece. Just make certain to tell everyone to look for it so that no one will choke on their new destiny.
As for the more edible side of the pudding, ingredients include currants, sultanas or raisins, sugar, lemon rind, nutmeg, cinnamon, bread crumbs, eggs, and suet (because the latter is no longer common in U.S. grocery stores, American recipes usually have butter instead). But the most famous addition is brandy, both as an ingredient and as a sauce: as an ingredient it keeps the pudding from getting moldy, and as a sauce it is set ablaze after the pudding has been grandly presented to the family at the end of Christmas dinner. Several fine Catholic books such as Feast Day Cookbook, Around with the Year with the Trapp Family, Family Advent Customs, and A Continual Feast contain recipes for plum pudding, [8] though I must confess that my favorite is Nigella Lawson’s “Ultimate Christmas Pudding.”
Barbarazweig, Austria
Barbara Branches
St. Barbara, one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, is the patron saint of artillerymen, miners, and a happy death. Although her feast on December 4 belongs to the Cycle of Saints and not the Temporal Cycle, there is a custom observed in her honor that ties into the meaning of Advent. A Barbara branch is a twig that is broken from a fruit tree (especially cherry), placed in a bowl of water, and kept in a warm and well-lit part of the house, such as the kitchen. According to legend, if the Barbara branch blooms on or before Christmas Day, good luck will come to the person whose branch it is. The custom was particularly popular among eligible maidens seeking a husband.
Aside from this harmless superstition, Barbara branches are reminiscent of the image from Isaiah of Christ as a flower from the root of Jesse (Isa. 11, 2, the Epistle for Advent Ember Friday); they can thus be instructive in teaching children the meaning of Advent and Christmas. Barbara branches are also used as the Saint’s tribute to the Christ Child in the manger, lovingly placed in or near the crèche when they have blossomed.
Adèle Söderberg, Christmas card
Lucy Lights and Delights
The customs surrounding the feast of St. Lucy (December 13) also illuminate the themes of Advent and Christmas. Lucy, whose name means light and whose association with light has made her the patron saint of the eyes (the “light of the body”), once had her feast fall on the shortest day of the year. (Before the Gregorian reform of the calendar, December 13 was the day of the winter solstice.) For all these reasons, St. Lucy is honored with a number of customs involving fire. Lucy candles were once lit in the home and Lucy fires burned outside. In Sweden and Norway, a girl dressed in white and wearing an evergreen wreath on her head with lit candles would awaken the family and offer them coffee and cakes. She was called the Lussibrud (Lucy bride) and her pastry the Lussekattor. Today, Sweden makes safer versions of the St. Lucia crown (batteries instead of flames) that can be purchased from Catholic vendors like Dumb Ox Publications.
The Feast of St. Lucy comes at a propitious time during the observance of Advent. Reminding us of the importance of light, the light of St. Lucy foreshadows the coming of the Light of the World on December 25 like a ray foreshadows the sun.
The Golden Nights
With each new Sunday heightening our sense of anticipation and with every Advent custom doing the same, it is little wonder that the eight days before Christmas became a semi-official octave of impatient expectation. This is expressed liturgically in the Divine Office’s Magnificat antiphons. From December 17 to 23, the Office of Vespers has a special “Greater” or “O” antiphon (so named for its opening vocative) that explicitly invokes the Son of God under various titles and begs Him to come.
The Gregorian chant for these antiphons is exquisite, as are the antiphons themselves, which call attention to the Word’s different manifestations to man in the Old Testament and to several of His divine attributes. The antiphons are also noteworthy for their “code.” The titles for Christ from each antiphon form an acrostic which, when read backwards, spells, “ERO CRAS -- I will be [there] tomorrow!” It is as if Christ were answering our prayers through the prayers themselves. Finally, the Greater antiphons are the inspiration of the beautiful medieval hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Each stanza of this famous song is a poetic rendering of an antiphon, which is why the hymn is traditionally sung only during the eight days prior to Christmas.
Eros Cras, Jakarta Cathedral
In many places, the octave of preparation was extended over nine days, making a Novena. By special permission, the “Golden Mass” of Ember Wednesday was sometimes offered in the pre-dawn hours for nine consecutive days prior to Christmas. Central Europe observed the “Golden Nights,” a festive season honoring the Blessed Virgin, the expectant Mother of God; in fact, December 18 was once the Feast of the Expectancy in Spain. In the Alps, schoolchildren observed the custom of Josephstragen, “carrying St. Joseph.” Each night, a group of boys would carry a statue of St. Joseph to another boy’s home. The night after the visit, the boy who had been visited would join the procession, making the number of carriers grow progressively larger. On Christmas Eve all the boys, accompanied by schoolgirls dressed in white, would process the statue through the town to the church, where it would be placed near the manger.
In Latin America, a Novena to the Holy Child (La Novena del Niño) can consist of praying and singing lively carols in front of the church's empty manger. The devotion began in the late eighteenth century and continues to the present day.
The more we are prepared for the Lord’s coming, the more we will truly welcome it, moving beyond our well-deserved sense of unworthiness to an exultation in His arrival. In the Collect for the Vigil of the Nativity, the Church prays: “Grant that we who now joyfully receive Thine only-begotten Son as our Redeemer may also, without fear, behold Him coming as our Judge.” The astonishing goal that the Church holds up for us during this brackish and important season is to have our hearts so pure and so inflamed with the love of God that beholding Him as our Judge in His terrifying glory will bring us no more dread than if we were greeting Him as a Babe in the manger. May the customs of Advent aid us in this end.
[1] See my “The End and Beginning of the Church Year: Interlocking Clasps in the Hidden Season,” TLM 22:3 (Fall 2013), 46-50.
[2] Francis X. Weiser, S.J., The Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs: The Year of the Lord in Liturgy and Folklore (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1958), 49-54.
[3] Maria Trapp, Around the Year with the Trapp Family (Pantheon, 1955), 16.
[4] Helen McLoughlin includes her family’s home ceremony in her book Family Advent Customs (The Liturgical Press, 1954), 6-7.
[5] See “Should an Advent Wreath Be in the Sanctuary?”
[6] The Byzantine calendar commemorates the Holy Forefathers (saints who lived before the Mosaic Law) on the penultimate Sunday before Christmas and the Holy Fathers of Our Lord (the saints after the Law who were somehow related to Christ by blood) on the Sunday before Christmas.
[7] Other variations include, “We’ll eat the lot.”
[8] See Katherine Burton and Helmut Ripperger, Feast Day Cookbook (David McKay Company, Inc., 1951), 168-9.; Trapp, 33; McLoughlin, 8; and Evelyn Birge Vitz, A Continual Feast: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Joys of Family and Faith Throughout the Christian Year (Ignatius Press, 1985), 152-3.

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