Up Front and Personal

The Traditions of Advent Season

By Father Ed Dougherty, M.M. 

This Sunday, Nov. 27, marks the beginning of Advent, a time of anticipation for the coming of Christ. Many wonderful traditions practiced throughout the world offer a glimpse of the varied ways we can awaken this spirit of anticipation within ourselves, our families, and our communities.

Saint Francis of Assisi initiated what has become one of Advent’s most well-known traditions: the Nativity scene. After a visit to the Holy Land, Francis returned to Italy determined to recreate the humble scene of Christ’s birth, so he requested and received permission from Pope Honorious III to stage a live Nativity in a cave near the village of Greccio. Nativity scenes soon became a hallmark of Italian homes during Advent, and today are one of the most universal ways people around the world prepare for Christmas.

In Poland, an old tradition is kept alive throughout Advent with the daily Roraty Mass, which begins in darkness, before sunrise, with worshippers carrying torches and lanterns. It ends after sunrise, with the light of day symbolizing Christ’s birth. Fasting, a common practice worldwide, is the predominant Advent commitment in India; and in Mexico, children take part in a procession called posada, in which they carry candles through the streets, with celebrations, songs, and bible stories, reenacting Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to stay in preparation for Christ’s birth.

It’s helpful to recognize that many of the traditions we practice today have roots dating back centuries and that much of our preparation for Christmas is about how we engage in these traditions. We’re all familiar with criticisms of Christmas becoming overly commercialized, but gift giving can be a great way to celebrate Christ’s birth, provided we don’t allow ourselves to be distracted by materialism. 

Gift giving has a long tradition at Christmas, and the time we spend during Advent making or trying to find that perfect gift for someone we love can be a perfect way to honor Christ. What’s important is to engage in the right spirit by focusing on the giving side of things without expectation of anything in return.

The great short story writer O. Henry captured the beauty of gift giving at Christmastime in The Gift of the Magi, a story in which a young couple who have recently been married and are poor except for the love they have for each other secretly sell their most treasured possessions to buy gifts for each other. The ironic twist at the end of the story, when their gifts are rendered useless in the absence of the treasures they’ve sold, merely highlights the true gift at the heart of their relationship — the selfless love they have for one another.

This story demonstrates the deeper meaning at the heart of the gift-giving that so often preoccupies our minds during Advent. It’s the kind of meaning we can have in all our preparations for Christmas. 

So, let’s embrace the wonderful traditions of Advent, such as decorating our homes, even decorating in simple ways, such as a wreath on the front door. It’s a time to set out our nativity scene and enjoy the daily anticipation of an Advent calendar. 

In all of this, let’s remember to sanctify the way in which we partake of these traditions by connecting them in our minds and hearts to their original purpose to awaken a sense of wonder at this time of year. In this way, we will truly prepare ourselves in this Advent season to be transformed by our anticipation for the coming of Christ.

Father Ed Dougherty is on the board of directors of The Christophers and the former Superior General of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers.