In the early centuries, the churches in the East celebrated both the birth and the baptism of Jesus on January 6. Not surprisingly, the day became a major occasion for performing baptisms, which led to a preparatory period of fasting and catechesis (instruction). During the fourth century, the Eastern churches followed the West's lead and adopted December 25 for the Feast of the Nativity. Even though this was no longer a day for baptisms, Eastern churches retained their tradition of penitential preparation. This practice spread to the northern and western regions of the church where it fit well with the greater emphasis there on the final coming and judgment of Christ, which called for self-examination and spiritual readiness. Today, Orthodox Christians still observe a nativity fast from meat November 15 through December 24.


In the church centered in Rome, it was a different story. There, Advent entailed a festive preparation for the birth of Christ from the start. In the sixth century Pope Gregory the Great established the forerunner of our Advent by creating special masses for the four Sundays preceding Christmas Day. After seesawing over the ensuing centuries, these two traditions, the "warm Latin joy" and the "ascetic northern preparation" eventually merged into the synthesis that characterizes Advent today. While fasting has largely fallen away in the West, we still feel a subtle and fruitful tension. As Christopher Hill puts it, "The pull between the affectionate backward look and the anxious forward look - both situated in the world of human time" opens up the present moment for Christ to come in our hearts.

 

Obviously, Advent and Christmas are closely linked, and many cultural customs apply to both seasons. For example, the Feast of St. Nicholas, from which we get our idea of Santa Claus, falls on December 6 in Advent. Three Advent traditions - the Christmas tree, the Advent wreath and the "O" Antiphons - open for us respectively the themes of death and life, darkness and light, doubt and longing.

The Christmas tree. Encroaching winter, with its growing cold and darkness, provides the seasonal  context for Advent, at least in the northern hemisphere. The "dead of winter" as we say, invokes images of fallow fields, barren trees, hard ground, absent birds and lowering skies. From as far  back as we have record, people in northern Europe decorated their dwellings at midwinter with evergreens such as holly, ivy, laurel and yew. "The strange survival of summer greens in the snows had always been a sacrament of the hope for new life through the winter," Explains Hill. In fact, Gregory the Great instructed missionaries to tolerate such customs and dedicate them to Christ. So, for example, holly can remind us of Christ with its prickly leaves (crown of thorns) and red berries (blood).

The decorated Christmas tree derives from this ancient tradition. The custom flourished in Germany as far back as the fifteen hundreds (Martin Luther is said to have decorated a tree indoors), although it did not spread widely in Europe until the nineteenth century. Interestingly, Christmas trees may have reached Revolutionary America by way of German settlers even before they appeared in England! But not until the early twentieth century did Christmas trees become more widely popular in the United States.

The Christmas tree, then, with its dark green branches and forest fragrance, its garlands and lights and bright adornments, comes into our homes in the dead of winter as a symbol of life and a sign of hope.

The Advent wreath. This simple arrangement consists of four candles set equidistant in a circle of evergreens, with a larger fifth candle placed in the middle. On the first Sunday of Advent, one candle is lit, on the second Sunday, two candles, and so on. Finally, on Christmas Eve, we light the Christ candle in the middle. Usually, three of the outer candles are purple, the liturgical color of Advent that signifies both penitence and royalty, but the candle for the third Sunday is rose-colored, denoting the theme of joy. The Christ candle is white. The circle suggests eternity, the greens symbolize life, and the cross of lighted candles points to Christ.

In ancient northern cultures, the lighting of bonfires and yule logs was meant to ward off the midwinter darkness and its sinister denizens. So it is easy to see how Christians combined the greenery of life and the candles of light into the Advent wreath. By lighting a new candle each week, by accumulating the brightness, we signify our hope in the coming light of Christ, even as daylight diminishes and darkness rises with the approach of winter solstice. Lighting the Advent wreath in our homes and churches enacts our faith in John's testimony: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it" (John 1:5).

The minor feast day of St. Lucy, or Lucia, on December 13 provides another opportunity to celebrate the coming light of Christ during Advent. Lucia, whose name derives from lux (Latin for "light"), was martyred in Italy in 304. Devoted to Christ, she gave all of her dowry to the poor, infuriating the man she was to marry by arrangement. He denounced her to the governor, who had her killed by the sword after attempts to burn her failed. Lucy is especially honored in Scandinavia as the Queen of Light. The custom is for a daughter in the home to wear a crown of candles and go from room to room  awakening the family from their deep midwinter sleep and bringing them Lucia buns baked with saffron.

The "O" Antiphons. Since the seventh century, this set of seven prayer texts has been sung or recited over the final days of Advent during the daily service of vespers, or evening prayer. They are voiced in response to the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Each antiphonal prayer addresses God with "O" and a biblical name and concludes with a call for him to come. The phrases of the prayers derive from Scripture. You may be familiar with them from the verses of the well-known Advent hymn, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." They may be used devotionally, one a day, from December 17 to 23. Here are the traditional texts of the "Great O's."

O Wisdom, O holy word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care: Come and show your people the way to salvation.