The Rich Meaning of Advent: The History Behind a Centuries-Old Celebration

When you celebrate Advent, you are joining a proud lineage of faithful Catholics from as early as the fourth century and beyond.

However, when Advent began more than a millennium ago, it looked nothing like it does today. Back then, Advent practices focused mostly on fasting, according to the Catholic Education Resource Center, although they admit the history is a bit fuzzy.

History of Advent in the Church

Scholars believe Advent began as a preparation to baptize converts. Fasting was required every Monday, Wednesday and Friday until Christmas. Eventually these practices spread across Europe and in 380, it was recognized in Spain as a three-week fast.

However, sixth-century Rome is where Advent started to shift from penitence to a recognition of the wonder of Christ’s birth. Advent liturgies were presented for five Sundays. They were later enhanced with prayers, readings and responses. Then Pope St. Gregory VII reduced the number of Sundays in Advent to four. Finally, around the ninth century, the Church designated the first Sunday of Advent as the beginning of the Church year.

Throughout this evolution, Advent’s focus has always been on the coming of Christ into our lives.


History of Advent in the Home

To the best of our knowledge, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the Advent traditions were brought from church to home. The earliest practice which did so was very likely the Advent wreath. The Catholic Education Resource Center believes the wreath has Northern European pre-Christian origins which were adapted by Christians and by 1600, when Christians established the formal Advent wreath traditions that we still practice today.

From Fasting to Feast Days

As Advent was celebrated at home, the focus moved from fasting to feasting, especially in multicultural Advent traditions. These include:

  • The Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6. This honors St. Nicholas, who is believed to have died this day in fourth century. Over time, he transformed into Santa Claus, but the Feast of St. Nicholas is still celebrated worldwide, especially in Eastern Europe and Germanic countries. Children leave their shoes by a window or bedroom door on December 5 and awake to find them filled with treats on December 6.
  • The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12. Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patroness of the Americas. On December 9, 1531, she appeared to a poor indigenous man, Juan Diego, in Mexico and requested that a shrine be built so she may comfort his people. (In 2002, Diego became the first indigenous person to be canonized.) Diego went to his bishop, who requested another sign before constructing the shrine. So the Virgin reappeared to Diego. She asked him to collect roses in his cloak and bring them to the bishop. When he opened his cloak to present the roses, dozens fell to the floor and inside of his cloak was the Blessed Mother’s image. The cloak remains on display today at the Basilica of Guadalupe.
  • The Feast of St. Lucia on December 13. This day honors a young Christian girl who was martyred in the third century for bringing food to jailed Christians in Rome. She wore candles in her hair to free her hands to carry as much sustenance as possible. That’s why, in Sweden, this day is celebrated by dressing the oldest daughter in a white dress with a red sash (to signify St. Lucia’s martyrdom), then placing a crown of candles on her head. Before dawn, she delivers St. Lucia Day buns or other sweetbreads to her family.

Advent Today

The rich history and traditions of Advent have culminated in a four-week celebration that provides powerful symbolism and themes made more so with meaningful traditions, fun family activities, and moving prayers. All help us keep Jesus at the center of the Christmas season.

More on Celebrating Advent:

Symbols of Advent:

  • The Advent Wreath and Candles: The Advent wreaths and candles are an important centerpiece to the season. On each Sunday of the four weeks of Advent, we light one candle to mark our progress toward His birth. This could signify that as we move closer to Jesus, our world becomes brighter.
  • Advent Calendars: Advent calendars heighten our excitement for the coming of our Lord by giving us a means to count down the days to His arrival. The tradition of the Advent calendar can be traced to the 19th century, when families made a chalk line for every day of December until Christmas Eve.
  • The Jesse Tree: The Jesse tree symbolizes Christ’s family tree. It tells about Christ’s ancestry through illustrations that represent the people, prophesy and events leading up to His birth. Jesse Trees often include an Ark to represent Noah and the flood, the burning bush, and the gifts of the Magi.
  • The Nativity Scene: Nativities may honor the intimacy of just Mary, Jesus and Joseph at the manger, or depict a glorious celebration replete with angels, wise men, children and animals.

Themes of the Weeks of Advent

Each week of Advent represents our growing faith that Jesus is coming. It takes us on a journey from hope to celebration. Learn all the meaning and celebrations of the Themes of the Weeks of Advent.

  • Hope. The First Week of Advent focuses on hope, this represents the hope that Christ will come to us and knowing that when we reach out to Him, He will lead us through the darkness.
  • Peace. The Second Week of Advent focuses on peace and preparation. As we are called to prepare for the coming of the Lord, we may enjoy the peace we have with God through the birth of Christ.
  • Joy. The Third Week of Advent is all about joy, a turning point in Advent where we move from hope and preparation to rejoicing in anticipation for the return of Christ.
  • Love. In this last week before Christmas, we focus on God’s love as we prepare for the Good news.

John 3:16: “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Prayers for Advent

There are many prayers for Catholics to say during Advent. A few examples include:

  • Lord, fill our hearts with your love, and as you revealed to us by an angel the coming of your Son as man, so lead us through his suffering and death to the glory of his resurrection, for He lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
  • All-powerful God, increase our strength of will for doing good that Christ may find an eager welcome at his coming and call us to his side in the kingdom of heaven, where He lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
  • God of power and mercy, open our hearts in welcome. Remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy, so that we may share his wisdom and become one with him when He comes in glory, for He lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
  • Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, ever faithful to your promises and ever close to your Church: the earth rejoices in hope of the Savior's coming and looks forward with longing to his return at the end of time. Prepare our hearts and remove the sadness that hinders us from feeling the joy and hope which his presence will bestow, for He is Lord for ever and ever. Amen.

Advent traditions provide us a centuries-old refuge from the commercialization of Christmas.   It’s exciting to think, as we partake in our Advent celebrations, that generations upon generations before us were lighting candles, saying prayers, and eagerly looking forward to the coming of our Lord Jesus just as we do today.

Want to learn more about Advent traditions and enhance your own celebration? This book provides meditations and prayers to bring you closer to Christ during Advent:

  • Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Pope Francis - Be inspired by the example of Pope Francis as he models the humility and generosity of our Savior. Reflect on the Pope`s teachings, accompanied by Scripture, prayer, and action. Then go out and share the message: Jesus Christ is born!

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