It is an unfortunate fact that nowadays the liturgical Christmas season — which starts with Dec. 25, rather than ending with it — is given very little attention.
Many people have their Christmas tree bedecked and yuletide carols playing shortly after Thanksgiving, or even before. It seems as if every year the Christmas season advances earlier and earlier.
Then, however, by the time the day itself comes around, all the celebration is mostly finished. Never mind the 12 Days of Christmas; often, radio stations are no longer playing carols on Dec. 25 itself.
Traditionally, however, Christmas observations began on the night of Christmas Eve — not before — and continued in feasting and celebration through Jan. 5, which is known as Twelfth Night or Epiphany.
Some go even further in extending the season until Candlemas on Feb. 2, 40 days after Christmas. The Octave, or eight days, of Christmas, are formally celebrated by the Church in the liturgy of the Mass and in the Divine Office.
Advent is in fact a wholly separate season from Christmas, and occupies its own place in the liturgical calendar. While much of Advent’s focus is anticipation of Christmas, true, it is much more than that. Advent is a season of waiting and of hope, of preparing one’s heart and mind for Christ’s coming.
In fact, it may be argued that all this carefree pre-Christmas celebration is not at all proper to the observation of this season of preparation. In previous ages of the Church, and in certain rites to this day, Advent is observed with solemn fasting and penance.
The season arose as an opportunity for the faithful to reflect on the state of their lives and to purify their souls. In the Eastern Orthodox rite, Advent is hardly less intense than Lent, involving many days of fasting and the practice of giving up certain things as penance.
These penitential Advent practices are only logical, given the nature of the Christmas season. Christmas is a time of great joy, it is true, the most joyful feast that the Church celebrates aside from Easter. But it is also a solemn and momentous feast.
One traditional Christmas hymn captures the spirit of the day when it says, “Let all mortal flesh keep silence / And with fear and trembling stand / Ponder nothing earthly minded / For with blessing in his hand / Christ our God to earth descendeth / our full homage to demand.”
Who can truthfully say that he or she is prepared and worthy for the coming of Christ? The birth of the savior ought to inspire awe and reverence, as well as a recognition of our own unworthiness.
The Mass readings leading up to Christmas are full of warnings to repent, like the words of St. John the Baptist. It seems almost presumptuous to make Advent into merely a continuation of party season, instead of taking the opportunity to clean house in one’s soul.
While I am not necessarily suggesting that one must fast stringently in order to properly observe Advent, I am certainly saying that Advent should not be treated as merely an opportunity for early Christmas parties and bazaars. The faithful Catholic ought rather to seize the opportunity to take a serious look at the state of his or her own soul.
Another unfortunate side effect of the all-encompassing advance of Christmas is the loss of all the unique and joyful Advent traditions and feasts. Traditionally, Catholics would anticipate Christmas with customs that called to mind the events and patriarchs that led up to Christ’s coming.
These would include decorating a small Jesse tree with symbols of Old Testament prophets and kings. One might also sing the “O Antiphons,” a series of prophetic Old Testament titles of our Lord, around an Advent wreath lit with an increasing number of candles.
Many great feast days of saints fall during Advent, and have been incorporated into Advent traditions. St. Nicholas of Myra obviously fits this category, as do St. Lucy and St. Wenceslaus. Each of these saints has specific foods and practices associated with their feast, such as leaving one’s shoes out for the visit of St. Nicholas and making the braided sweet bread of St. Lucy.
A more obscure but fun ritual is the eating of pickles on the feast of St. Nicholas. These customs enliven and enrich the Catholic’s Advent, and we will be the poorer for allowing them to be displaced.
Advent and Christmas are separate seasons. The good Catholic ought to celebrate each liturgical season according to its due. They are uniquely beautiful in their own right, and blurring the two seasons into each other only detracts from their individual strengths.