It's getting to be that time again...when Catholics end the old liturgical year and begin a new liturgical year with the season of Advent. With this in mind, I wanted to summarize a few basic characteristics of the wonderful liturgical season of Advent, which is so often misunderstood by Catholics today, especially living in the midst of a culture that begins Christmas celebrations seemingly immediately following Thanksgiving.
1. Advent is penitential in nature. The purple vestments worn by the priest during the season of Advent should be indication enough of the penitential nature of Advent. Since Vatican II, however, some parishes have chosen to embrace blue vestments in order visually to distinguish Advent from the season of Lent. Blue is not an officially acceptable liturgical color for the season of Advent in the Roman rite, however. The violet color of Advent in fact is meant to associate Advent with Lent. Advent was traditionally called "the little Lent" and the penance of Advent, like the penance of Lent, was meant to prepare the faithful for a great celebration. The other penitential liturgical changes for the season of Advent include the omission of the Gloria at the Mass and the omission of the Te Deum from the Divine Office.
2. There are traditional communal penances of Advent. The customary Advent in such places as Rome included a Catholic fast (including meat abstinence) on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout Advent. The difficulties of immigrant life in the U.S. led the Third Provincial Council of Baltimore to request a dispensation from this Advent fasting, as well as a dispensation from Wednesday meat abstinence. The request was granted, and the U.S. has never since been obligated to Wednesday-Friday Advent fasting. Eastern Catholics, like the Orthodox, customarily practiced a strict 40-day "Philippian fast" during the season of Advent (the Orthodox feast of St. Philip is celebrated on November 14th, and the fast follows that feast).
3. Advent is a time for preparation. Too often today we associate penance with difficulty and gloominess. Undoubtedly penance does involve some degree of difficulty; the word mortification does come from the word for "death," after all. But the point of Advent penance or Lenten penance or Friday penance is similar in that it is a preparation. Penances - even small penances with minimum difficulty - serve as a constant reminder that something is going on. Penance turns our mind to preparation and helps prepare us to celebrate big feasts, like Christmas or Easter or Sunday, well. Given the demands of Christmas in terms of gift-giving, cooking, etc., Advent concretely lends itself to recognition as a season of preparation. But on the other hand, the demands of these material preparations can distract us from spiritual preparation.
4. Advent is distinct from Christmas. This point really should be self-evident, but unfortunately in American culture today there is no real distinction between Advent and Christmas. Catholics who attend Mass only weekly will notice perhaps an Advent wreath and the purple vestments of the priest, but they will be immersed the rest of the week in "Secret Santas," office parties, Elf on the Shelf, major sales of retailers, ubiquitous Christmas decorations, and Christmas music. Even Advent calendars tend to be Christmas-themed, and some are now identified simply as "Countdown to Christmas" calendars. Liturgically, however, Advent and Christmas are distinct seasons. Up until Pope John XXIII, Catholics were required to fast on Christmas Eve in preparation for Christmas Day; the pope moved that fast to December 23rd, but like other vigil fasts, this Christmas Eve fast was dropped in 1966.
Practical implications: After these few basic characteristics of Advent, we might wonder how best to observe the season of Advent. Especially in the midst of a culture that is already celebrating Christmas, how might Catholics observe Advent faithfully without appearing judgmental or Scroogish to those already fully immersed in holiday celebration?
1. The Advent Wreath. Chief among the liturgical practices of Advent is the lighting of the Advent wreath, with three purple candles, and one pink. It is a great family tradition to light the Advent wreath each night before dinner.
2. Sing Advent Songs. When you go out in public, you WILL hear Christmas music; that's pretty much a given. In your own space, however, you should sing Advent songs. There are so many beautiful Advent songs that really speak to the longing and preparation of the season. It's a great idea to sing one of these songs when lighting the Advent wreath each night.
3. Voluntary Penance. Given that Advent is a penitential season, it is a great time to take up a voluntary penance. This can be done as a family, e.g. going vegetarian for the season of Advent. The penance can also be done individually, e.g. giving up sweets. Other ideas include increasing almsgiving, adding some special Advent prayers, or being more cheerful.
4. Preparation. All of the above facilitate preparation for Christmas. But there is more that can be done to prepare. Advent is a great time to attend daily Mass. If you are unable to do that, you might take five to ten minutes and at least read and reflect on the daily Mass readings for that day. This brings home the liturgical sense of Advent, including both the longing for Christ's final coming at the end of time and the longing for Christ's birth in Bethlehem.
5. The Sacrament of Confession. Given that Advent is a season for penance and preparation, it is a wonderful time to receive the sacrament of confession. Many churches have confession days or communal services during the season of Advent to facilitate people receiving this sacrament.
6. Dealing with Christmas during Advent. We love Christmas. And that's one reason why it is so hard to wait when the rest of America seems already to be celebrating. How should we handle Christmas parties that take place during Advent? And how do we make our material preparations, e.g. gift-buying, for Christmas without letting the materialism take possession of all our spare moments? These are some of the most difficult challenges to address. Sometimes it is simply impractical to refuse attending "Christmas" parties during Advent. And dealing with kids' enthusiasm for Christmas can make this even more difficult; we don't want to crush their Christmas spirit or make them feel left out when all their classmates have already begun with the Christmas excitement. Hence there is no perfect solution to these problems. Priests in the 1950s suggested avoiding lavish parties and practicing moderation and abstemiousness at other Christmas parties during Advent. Instead of taking the cookie you want, try the one you don't want. Instead of having two drinks, limit yourself to one.
6a. The Decoration Debate. Ideally, Catholics would not put up Christmas decorations until Christmas Eve, and they would leave them out until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which ends the Christmas season. Sticking rigidly to this can be challenging, given the need for preparation, not to mention the excitement of the kiddos. Sometimes it can be helpful for both of these issues to choose one or two things to do ahead of time. Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, can be a good day for this. For example, my family has sometimes put up our tree on this day. Another idea is to wait until the "O antiphons" begin, marking the last seven days of Advent, and get out one decoration each day. If you can manage it for your particular situation, you might delay decorating altogether until Christmas Eve.
6b. The Nativity Set(s). My kids have their own little nativity set, and they all love to play with it. In the past, I've taken it out right at the beginning of Advent as a way of helping them prepare for Christmas. It almost always, happens, however, that by the time Christmas hits, they are tired of it. This coincides nicely with their receiving Christmas gifts, I suppose, but it also can be a bit disappointing to see them tired of the nativity story. So in recent years, I've delayed taking it out until Gaudete Sunday, or, even better, the beginning of the O antiphons on December 17. Of all the "Christmas" decorations, however, this one - with an empty crib until Christmas Eve, of course! - is the most appropriate for Advent.
6c. Prayerful Material Preparation. Pope Benedict XVI once noted the appropriateness of gift-giving that characterizes Christmas. God has given us the wonderful gift of Jesus; it is good for us also to be generous like God in our giving of gifts. And yet this can often become a stressful task. Planning ahead is important, and not overthinking gifts is also important. Like any worry, gift-giving and wrapping are a good thing to approach prayerfully, asking for God's guidance in selecting good gifts. Wrapping each gift is a nice time to say a prayer for the person who will receive the gift. Cooking and baking should ideally be done in this same spirit.
6d. The Advent Calendar. Advent calendars come in all varieties these days...although mostly with Christmas colors and themes. Nonetheless, they can serve as a very practical way for kids (and adults) to prepare for Christmas. My kids always love their chocolate-filled Advent calendars. I worry that they don't represent the penitential element of Advent, but we have a tradition of them saying "Maranatha! or Come, Lord Jesus," each morning before receiving their chocolate, and this is a good reminder, not to mention the discipline of only getting ONE piece of chocolate each day.
6e. Spiritual Reading for Kids. Through the years, we have acquired a large collection of Christmas books. There would be too many for us to appreciate them in the brief season of Christmas, so we generally get them out at the beginning of Advent. These are helpful in preparing them for Christmas, and I find that they actually help me think about the meaning of Christmas too!
7. Big Feasts During Advent. Don't forget that there are some great feasts that occur during the season of Advent. One of our favorites is St. Nicholas Day, December 6th. I find this to be a good day to sneak a little "Christmas" into Advent without undermining Advent. My kids put out their shoes and I fill them with candy canes and gold-wrapped chocolate coins. Sometimes they even get a book or a movie...or matching pajamas. We love St. Nicholas, and the candy canes and coins are a great opportunity to discuss his life as a bishop defending the truth and as a generous pastor concerned with the welfare of his congregation. The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th is another important feast to celebrate, and given that it is a solemnity, it should offer a brief reprieve from your voluntary penance. December 12th, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a great time to recall the story of Juan Diego in Mexico and talk to your children about that feast. December 13th, the Feast of St. Lucy, is a good day to light candles and talk about Jesus as the light in the darkness.
8. Celebrate Christmas Well. By the time Christmas actually comes, most people are ready to be done with it. They put away their decorations on December 26th and leave Christmas behind for another year. That is not the Catholic way, however. Christmas continues, especially for the octave (the first eight days), but also for the "Twelve Days" of Christmas. Epiphany is within the Christmas season, which technically does not end until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Keeping Christmas going can be just as challenging as was postponing it. A special dessert each day might help, listening to Christmas music, inviting over friends and visiting friends or people in need, or doing extra acts of kindness can help keep the Christmas spirit going. And of course, don't put those decorations away until Christmas is over.