The History and Meaning of Advent
What is Advent?
Like Lent, Advent is a preparatory season. It has significance because it is a season of looking forward and waiting for something greater; both for the annual celebration of the event of Christ's birth, and for the time when Christ will come again.
As noted in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, during Advent, the faithful are asked:
to prepare themselves worthily to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord's coming into the world as the incarnate God of love,
thus to make their souls fitting abodes for the Redeemer coming in Holy Communion and through grace, and
thereby to make themselves ready for His final coming as judge, at death and at the end of the world.
Origin and History of Advent
A collection of homilies from Pope St. Gregory the Great (whose papacy was from 590-604) included a sermon for the second Sunday of Advent, and by 650 Spain was celebrating the Sundays (five at the time) of Advent. So it seems the liturgical season was established around the latter part of the 6th century and first half of the 7th century. For the next couple of centuries, Advent was celebrated for five Sundays; Pope Gregory VII, who was pope from 1073-85, reduced the number to four Sundays.
In recent decades, a trend of wearing blue vestments rather than purple during Advent has emerged. However, purple is the appropriate vestment color, as noted in paragraph 346 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, in the section which discusses the prescribed colors for liturgical vestments:
Violet or purple is used in Advent and Lent. It may also be worn in Offices and Masses for the Dead.
Rose may be used, where it is the practice, on Gaudete Sunday (Third Sunday of Advent) and on Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent).
The Advent wreath is likely the most popular tradition, and wreaths are typically present in both the parish church and in the home. It is a more recent tradition, with the modern Advent wreath emerging in Germany and spreading throughout Europe and beyond in the 1930's. It is often circular, representing God's eternity, and it includes 4 candles - one for each Sunday of Advent. Many families have a wreath in the home, and will light the candles each Sunday and say Advent prayers together. A great guide for this practice is the book Season of Light.
The Jesse Tree is also a popular Advent tradition. A Jesse Tree, named for the father of David, is a tree that is decorated gradually throughout Advent with symbols or pictures of biblical persons associated with the gradual coming of the Messiah, Christ. This includes, among others, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Joseph and Mary. The Jesse Tree tradition provides a wonderful teaching opportunity; it is a perfect way to teach and remind children about the preparatory nature of Advent. Aquinas and More carries Jesse Tree kits, which can be viewed by clicking here.
Advent calendars are another popular tradition, although they most often follow the calendar month of December, not the four Sundays which can begin in November. While many popular Advent calendars use purely secular images, Aquinas and More is proud to offer a selection of several Catholic themed Advent Calendars.
For other Advent activities and ideas on celebrating Advent in the home, also check out Advent, Christmas and Epiphany in the domestic Church: Activities to Celebrate Catholic Liturgical Seasons. For more information on Advent, Advent prayer books and other Advent supplies, check out our Advent and Christmas Specialty Store.