From the Rector: Origin and History of Advent

Origin and History of Advent

The exact time when the season of Advent came to be celebrated is not precisely known, the earliest evidence shows that the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord was established within the later part of the 4th century. There are homilies from the 5th century that discuss preparation in a general sense, but do not indicate an official liturgical season. A Synod held in 590 established that Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from November 11th until the Nativity would be offered according to the Lenten rite. This and other traditions, such as fasting, show that the period of time now established as the Advent season was more penitential (similar to Lent) than the liturgical season as we know it today.

A collection of homilies from Pope St. Gregory the Great (whose papacy was from 590-604) included a sermon for the second Sunday of Advent, and by 650 Spain was celebrating the Sundays (five at the time) of Advent. So it seems the liturgical season was established around the latter part of the 6th century and first half of the 7th century. For the next couple of centuries, Advent was celebrated for five Sundays; Pope Gregory VII, who was pope from 1073-85, reduced the number to four Sundays.

Advent Today

The themes and traditions of the Advent season have evolved throughout the history of the liturgical season. As mentioned, the early Advent season was mainly penitential, close to the theme of the Lenten season. Today a penitential theme still exists, but it is not as intense as in 7th century. Also, it is blended with the theme of prayerful, spiritual preparation for the second and final coming of the Lord, as well as the joyful preparation for the annual festive remembrance of the Incarnation and Christ’s birth.

Violet, or purple, is the appropriate vestment color, as noted in paragraph 346 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, in the section which discusses the prescribed colors for liturgical vestments:

  • Violet or purple is used in Advent and Lent. It may also be worn in Offices and Masses for the Dead.

Rose may be used, where it is the practice, on Gaudete Sunday (Third Sunday of Advent) and on Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent).

Advent Traditions

Advent celebration and traditions can vary from place to place, influenced by culture. However, some traditions have come to be common throughout the Catholic Church.

The Advent wreath is likely the most popular tradition, and wreaths are typically present in both the parish church and in the home. It is often circular, representing God’s eternity, and it includes 4 candles – one for each Sunday of Advent. Many families have a wreath in the home, and will light the candles each Sunday and say Advent prayers together.

The Jesse Tree is also a popular Advent tradition. A Jesse Tree, named for the father of David, is a tree that is decorated gradually throughout Advent with symbols or pictures of biblical persons associated with the gradual coming of the Messiah, Christ. This includes, among others, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Joseph and Mary. The Jesse Tree tradition provides a wonderful teaching opportunity; it is a perfect way to teach and remind children about the preparatory nature of Advent.

Advent calendars are another popular tradition, although they most often follow the calendar month of December, not the four Sundays which can sometimes begin in November.

Be sure to take time this Advent season for deeper reflection, prayer and preparation of your heart for the Coming of Our Savior, Jesus Christ, then when Christmas Season comes, be sure to celebrate Christmas for the whole season!


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