Catholicism 101: Advent

Advent. It’s one of my favorite times of year, if not the absolute favorite. I don’t know if it’s the decorations or the Christmas music piped in from everywhere, but there’s almost this sense of underlying joy and expectation everywhere. Children looking forward to Santa’s visit, adults looking forward to the joy on the kids’ faces, everyone looking forward to seeing family and friends. And of course the Church looking forward to and preparing for the coming of Christ. I love it.

For those of you who might not know this, here’s some fun facts I learned while researching this week. Advent in the Catholic church lasts about 4 weeks. Officially it starts on the Sunday nearest the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle (Nov. 30), so it could fall anywhere from Nov. 27 to Dec. 3. This year it’s on Dec. 2 (aka today). It can be as short as 22 days, and as long as 28 days. The term Advent comes from the Latin word adventus, meaning arrival or coming. Perfect way to describe this season, especially since we focus on both comings of Christ during Advent. The first 2 Sundays, we hear readings about the second coming of Christ, when He will come as King and rule all nations. Midseason, we switch to focus on His first coming, the birth and nativity. All serves to create the feeling of expectation and the joy of anticipation.

Advent is a season rife with traditions and customs, some I had heard of before I converted, and many I had never knew existed at all. My favorites are the Advent wreath, Advent calendar, the nativity scene and the Jesse tree.

Advent Wreath

The Advent Wreath was a new tradition for me that Kort and I started doing during our Catholic-in-training days (the year or so before converting, while we were still researching it). Candles weren’t allowed in our dorm room, so we got crafty and painted battery operated tapers to use instead, and decorated a small wreath to go around them. I like the battery operated ones better, because if I forget to turn them off, it’s not as dangerous as me leaving a lit candle around for Fuzzy to knock over.

There are 4 candles in the Advent Wreath, 3 purple and 1 pink. Often there is a fifth, white candle in the center that is lit during the twelve days of Christmas. The purple candles symbolize the coming of the Prince of Peace. Purple is the color of royalty after all. The one pink candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, to celebrate having reached the halfway point of Advent. This is the candle that I’ll be lighting during Mass this year for the first time. 🙂

The wreath itself is full of symbolism as well, with the circular shape showing the eternity of God, the immortality of the soul, and the everlasting life found in Christ. Depending on what it’s made of, more meanings are added. Laurel for victory over persecution and suffering; pine, holly, and yew for immortality; and cedar for strength and healing. (Wonder what my fake evergreen wreath represents?)

Advent Calendar

When I was little we had a large Advent Calendar on the wall, shaped like a tree. Every day we took turns opening that day’s drawer and pulling out the tiny ornament to decorate the tree. (And eat the candy tucked inside too). It was an awesome way to count down to Christmas, and seeing the tree fill with ornaments made us more excited with every one we added. Now that I’m older, I want to continue the Advent Calendar, but with activities rather than stuff. My list includes things like Christmas Movie Night, decorating the tree, a home spa day, going to a living nativity nearby, and just other fun things I can do by myself or with friends. I’m hoping to shift my focus this year to making memories rather than acquiring stuff. I’ve got enough stuff anyway.

Nativity Scene

Ever since I can remember, a nativity scene has been a big part of our Christmas celebrations. My sister and I took turns moving the figurines of Mary and Joseph around the living room and closer to the stable every day until Christmas Eve and their arrival at the inn. (The wise men usually ‘flew’ down the next day.) Now that I’m older and have my own place, I’ve inherited the nativity set and take great joy in setting it up each year, retelling the story of the birth of Christ through the figurines.

The nativity scene tradition was actually started by St. Francis of Assisi. He wanted to celebrate the birth of Jesus with the townspeople, and do so with such great respect and devotion. After being granted permission, he prepared a manger with hay and set it up in a cave outside of town, along with bringing an ox and donkey. He had costumed people playing the roles of Mary and Joseph, and local shepherds nearby watching their actual flocks. When everyone came to see what was going on, they found St. Francis full of joy and weeping as he preached the nativity. This first nativity scene was so popular that people everywhere began setting up their own living nativities and eventually that migrated indoors as well, with small statues and mini replicas of the stable recreating the story for people year after year.

Jesse Tree

The Jesse tree is something new I’m starting this year. The idea behind it is basically tracing Jesus’s genealogy, from Adam and Eve down to Mary and Joseph. There’s symbols for each important person in the lineage, such as Jacob, Moses, Jesse, and David. There’s also symbols related to the “O” Antiphons used in the Liturgy of the Hours starting on Dec. 17, one for each title for Jesus, such as Emmanuel, Key of David, and Light of the World. I got all the information and scriptures for making mine @ (after following a pinterest link!) I’m excited to see how mine turns out and hope to share pics soon.

Happy Advent, everyone!



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