Advent, which comes from the Latin word for "arrival" or "coming," is a period of preparation for the birth of our Lord. Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas and is the start of the Christmas season, which lasts through the Baptism of Our Lord. The first Sunday of Advent also marks the beginning of the liturgical year, the Church's "New Year's Day," at which time we change the cycle of readings we are using at Mass.
Advent is a time of joyous anticipation, but also of penance and preparation for the great Christmas feast. The liturgical color of the season is purple, a sign of penance, which is also used during Lent. The Church discourages excessive ornamentation, boisterous music and even weddings during Advent, in order to foster a sense of quiet hope.
Thomas J. Talley, in The Origins of the Liturgical Year (Pueblo Publishing Company), sees the beginning of an advent season in the Fourth Canon of the Council of Saragosa in 380. In 567, the Synod of Tours established a December fast. And in 581 the Council of Macon ordered an advent fast for the laity from the Feast of St. Martin (November 11) to Christmas. This took the name of St. Martin's Lent.
In the seventh and eighth centuries, lectionaries (books containing the scriptural readings for the Liturgy of the Word) provided for six Sundays in Advent.
According to the Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, edited by Richard P. McBrien, Gregory the Great, who died in 604, was the real architect of the Roman Advent. Gregory fixed the season at four weeks and composed seasonal prayers and antiphons. Gaul (France) enriched the season with eschatological elements. And the fusion of the Roman and Gallican observances returned to Rome by the 12th century.
The Advent wreath is one of our most popular Advent traditions. Its origin is in pre-Christian Germany and Scandinavia where the people gathered to celebrate the return of the sun after the winter solstice. The circular wreath made of evergreens with four candles interspersed represented the circle of the year and the life that endures through the winter. As the days grew longer, people lit candles to offer thanks to the "sun god" for the light. For us, the lighting of the Advent candles represents the promise of the coming of Jesus, the light of the world.
To make an Advent wreath, begin with a Styrofoam circle, available at craft shops, and cut four evenly spaced holes into which you will place the four candles. Traditionally there are three purple candles and one rose candle (for the third Sunday), but blue candles can also be used. Purple reminds us to turn our hearts toward God; rose is a color of joy. Place fresh evergreen branches over the Styrofoam. Replace them when they dry out in order to preserve the symbolism of the vitality of God's love. Encourage children to participate as they are able, by gathering branches, placing the candles and so on.
The third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday because in Latin, the first words of the opening antiphon for that day’s Mass are "Gaudete in Domino semper" ("Rejoice in the Lord always"). On this Sunday rose-colored vestments are permitted and the rose-colored candle is lit as a reminder that we are called to rejoice.
An ancient tradition revived in the mid-20th century as an Advent practice, the Jesse Tree represents the family of Jesse, father of King David. Out of this family line, God would take flesh and live among the people of earth. The Gospel of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Mt 1:1-17) names a person from each generation before Jesus’ birth. Stories about these people are in the Old Testament. The Jesse Tree itself can be made from paper, cloth, branches or a tabletop Christmas tree. Make or add an ornament each day of Advent to represent the ancestors of Jesus.
The word posada means "shelter" or "lodging." This Advent custom, popular throughout the Spanish-speaking world, reenacts Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and their search for lodging along the way. The ritual lasts for nine days (December 16-24), representing the months of Mary’s pregnancy. A group of people travel from house to house on their route, taking the role of pilgrims seeking lodging. Those inside the homes are innkeepers who refuse them. At the last home all are invited in for prayer and refreshments.
In the United States, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, is a holy day of obligation. Mary is the patroness of the U.S. under this title. The others are Christmas Day, December 25, and Mary, Mother of God, January 1. In years when January 1 falls on either Saturday (as it does in 2005) or Monday the obligation is lifted.
St. Nicholas of Myra lived and acquired his reputation for sanctity long before the Church began its formal process of beatification. He became recognized as a saint by a kind of popular acceptance.
Historians and hagiographers generally write that much of what is said about Nicholas is legend. Again, remember that at Nicholas's time there were no investigation and authentication of claimed miracles before canonization took place. Attributing miracles and wonders to a person was an ancient way of expressing people's conviction about the holiness of the person.
You will still find Nicholas listed in the various dictionaries of saints, for example, Dictionary of Saints, by John Delaney (Doubleday). And you will still find Nicholas listed in the Roman Calendar on December 6. There he is assigned an optional memorial. In other words, churches and communities on that day may choose to celebrate either the liturgy in honor of St. Nicholas or the liturgy for a weekday in Advent.