The word Advent is from the Latin adventus for "coming."
It is associated with the four weeks of preparation for Christmas. Advent always contains four Sundays, beginning on the Sunday nearest the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, (November 30) and continuing until December 24. It blends together a penitential spirit, very similar to Lent, a liturgical theme of preparation for the Second and Final Coming of the Lord, called the Parousia, and a joyful theme of getting ready for the Bethlehem event.
Since the 900s, Advent has been considered the beginning of the Church year. This does not mean that Advent is the most important time of the year. Easter has always had this honor.
The traditional color of Advent is purple or violet, which symbolizes the penitential spirit. Religious traditions associated with Advent express all these themes.
"Customarily the Advent Wreath is constructed of a circle of evergreen branches into which are inserted four candles (advent candles). According to tradition, three of the candles are violet and the fourth is rose. However, four violet or white candles (advent candles) may also be used" (Book of Blessings 1510).
The rose candle is lit the third Sunday of Advent, for this color anticipates and symbolizes the Christmas joy announced in the first word of the Entrance Antiphon: "Rejoice" (Latin, Gaudete). For this reason the Third Sunday is also called Gaudete Sunday, and rose color vestments are permitted.
The Advent Wreath represents the long time when people lived in spiritual darkness, waiting for the coming of the Messiah, the Light of the world. Each year in Advent people wait once again in darkness for the coming of the Lord, His historical coming in the mystery of Bethlehem, His final coming at the end of time, and His special coming in every moment of grace.
During Advent, family and friends can gather around the Advent Wreath lighting the appropriate candle(s), read from the daily Advent meditation and sing songs. The Church's official Book of Blessings also provides a blessing ceremony for the advent wreath which can be used in the absence of a priest.
A personal calendar can be made for the four weeks before Christmas. On the calendar, a person can mark the Advent Calendar with personal goals of preparation or acts of service to be done for others.
During Advent, biblical persons representing the ancestors of Jesus, either in faith or bloodline, are gradually added onto a tree or branch, named after the father of David. The symbols such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Jesse, David, Solomon, Joseph and Mary can be drawn, cut out or purchased.
This is a popular rendition of the Jesse Tree and is usually purchased in a religious goods store. It has windows to be opened each day during Advent, each displaying a feature of the coming of the Christ Child. On December 24 the door is opened, revealing the Nativity scene.
The tradition of having a nativity scene or "crÃ¨che" was made popular by St. Francis of Assisi. It is a reproduction of the cave in Bethlehem with Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus in a manger, shepherds, angels, and animals. Each night during Advent, children are encouraged to place in the manger one piece of straw for each good deed done that day by a family member. This Advent tradition combines the spirit of conversion and the coming of Jesus. There is a blessing ceremony provided by the Church in the Book of Blessings for the crÃ¨che.
For most, Christmas is over by December 26 and life has resumed its normal activities. The Church, on the other hand, observes an Octave of Christmas until January 1 (after the Jewish practice of an 8 day celebration) and an extended Christmastime until January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. (It is now celebrated on the Sunday between January 2 and January 8.) The popular Christmas song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," is rooted in the festive celebration of Christmastime and a celebration of the Catholic faith, from a time in England and Ireland when Catholics had to disguise their Catholic beliefs.
During Christmastime, there are feasts of three martyrs: St. Stephen on December 26, who represents those who went to their death willingly; St. John the Evangelist on December 27 who represents those who were willing to die but were not put to death, and the Holy Innocents on December 28, representing those who were put to death without their choice, recalling the events surrounding the Birth of Christ. On the Sunday between Christmas and January 1, the Church celebrates the Holy Family. This feast is especially important today as many families today face struggles and challenges in living their Faith.
"The Word became Flesh and made His dwelling among us, and we have seen His glory: The glory of an only Son coming from the Father, filled with enduring love." (John 1:14)
The actual date of Christ's birth is unknown. The Gospels do not record it and there is not any early tradition to identify it. Scholars identify the approximate year as sometime between 8 - 5 BC and the season as probably early spring. The feast day was placed where it was, in all likelihood, to supplant the practice of the winter solstice festival among pagan converts by pointing to Christ as the true light who comes into the world. The Western Church emphasizes the celebration of the Nativity or Birth of Jesus on December 25, while the Eastern Church celebrates His manifestation to the Magi on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6.
The word Christmas was derived from the Old English Cristes Maesse or "Mass of Christmas." Over the centuries it has become a comprehensive word including both the religious traditions and the secular traditions.
In North America, the early immigrants brought their different Christmas traditions. The Germans brought the Christmas tree, the Irish contributed the lights in windows of homes, Catholic immigrants brought Midnight Mass and everyone had their own Christmas carols.