Advent: A Counter-Sign for Christmas
“It’s beginning to look a lot like ...”
... that time of year when we celebrate Christmas for roughly four weeks, beginning in late November, and ending abruptly on the day following that which is actually Christmas. On Sirius XM satellite radio, up to six channels will be devoted solely to Christmas music (and one to Channukah), some beginning as early as now, three ending on (you guessed it) the day after Christmas, and two others ending around New Year's Eve. The Latino channel goes through January 6, because ending it before "Los Tres Reyes" would be, like, totally racist. Needless to say, the stores are already in full swing with holiday decorations, and people killing each other at Walmart for a steal on pre-paid cellphones.
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In response to premature but well-intentioned attempts at goodwill, one of my good colleagues once remarked that, even with an overture of light-heartedness in the midst of crass commercialism, “they are committing the same anti-Advent error as the secular culture is. Some counter-sign!”
He's right, but is there an alternative?
’TIS THE SEASON
It should first be remembered that the Advent season, which begins four days from now (this year, on what is also the Feast of Saint Andrew), is itself part of the Christmas Cycle, that which traditionally begins the liturgical year with the First Sunday of Advent, and continues on into the twelve days of the Christmas season, and thereafter into Epiphanytide, up until the pre-Lenten season of Septuagesima (the three Sundays that were prelude to Ash Wednesday). To celebrate Advent then, is already to celebrate Christmas, if only to a point.
Is Advent only about doing penance?
Modern dilettantes on matters liturgical like to tell people, at their sophomoric weekend workshops, that Advent is really not like Lent at all, that it is a season of expectation, not of penance. Apparently, nearly two thousand years of evidence is simply not enough for these intellectual giants. In the Eastern churches, the forty days preceding Christmas is one of the four seasons of fasting, with what is known in the West as Lent referred to as "the Great Fast." It begins with the Feast of Saint Philip on the 14th of November (according to the Eastern calendar), and is therefore known among the Slavs as "Filipovka." Even in the West, the notion of fasting or abstinence, is akin to the Famine before the Feast. Yes, it is indeed about penance, if for a purpose that is different from Lent.
The time for those of the Domestic Church to stop wringing their hands, and taking matters into them instead, is long overdue. This venue has been active in the same cause for more than a decade. (Where the hell have the rest of you been?) Parents who complain that their children will grow up learning nothing of Christmas but crass commercialism, and that the 26th of December is the day of the Big Anti-Climax, have an alternative. They'll have to work at it a little. They may have to read weblogs like this one. They may even have to find other families of like mind within their parish, whether or not they ask for the pastor's cooperation in putting the kabosh on parish "Christmas parties" in mid-December.
You can almost hear it now.
“But, but, Mister and Missus McGillacuddy, the families will tell me they’ll all be out of town.”
"But, but, Father, that still doesn’t make it Christmas yet, does it?"
On the other hand, we all know what awaits the church bulletin in certain other places, which isn't much better.
THE PASTOR'S CORNER
Here at Our Lady of Perpetual Mediocrity, we remember the sacred dreariness of the Advent season, with the forbidding of any and all celebrations on parish property, so as not to take away from the 24-hour-maximum joy of the feast of our blessed Savior's birth (beginning with our two very popular Vigil Masses the evening before, at 5:00 and 7:30, where you can get it over with), not to mention the fullness of the twelve days of the Christmas season (more or less depending on when Epiphany falls on a Sunday; God forbid the Church intrude on your busy lives), when you'll all be out of town anyway.
Yours in Christ,
Father Billy Bob
THAT NASTY HUMAN EQUATION
In dealing with the celebration of Christmas in its proper perspective, we must first remember that what we have now, with endless shopping and carols on the radio in preparation for a single day, appeals to our nature. We have an innate sense of the seasons of the year, the times of our lives. We delight in anticipation, the thrill of the chase eclipsing even the joy of the catch, or else the department stores would have nothing to which to elicit the usual response. And yet, we have also led ourselves to believe that taking more than a day off to celebrate anything is somehow excessive unless we leave town over it. We are just as likely to spend over a month preparing to celebrate the second biggest holyday in the Church year on only one day, just like everyone else. So why should the rest of the world take the idea seriously that Advent isn't Christmas yet? We don't behave as if it is anymore than our neighbors, except when we complain about ... well, our neighbors. At least they're having more fun with it than us.
Every year at man with black hat, we celebrate the season before, during, and after the Feast of the Nativity. You and your family can celebrate each day with us. But first, we will begin with Advent.
THE ADVENT WREATH
The most popular household devotion of Advent is, of course, the Advent wreath, which originated among the German people as early as the 17th century. What began as the lighting of one candle for each day in December leading to the 25th, eventually evolved into the lighting of four candles to mark the Sundays of Advent, usually at the start of the evening meal. For the first week, one is lit; for the second, two, and so on, until all are lighted up to the eve of the Nativity. The candles are traditionally purple, to coincide with the penitential nature of the season, as seen in the priest's vestments. The third candle is usually pink (or more properly, rose) to mark the mid-season occasion that is Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday.
This display is also popular in parish churches, which is somewhat of an anomaly, as it is not a liturgical practice in the strict sense, but a pious custom more suited to the home. Be that as it may ...
At the beginning, especially if there are children, they may be invited to begin by singing the first verse and chorus of "O Come O Come Emmanuel" as the appropriate number of candles are lit. A portion of Scripture for the Mass or Office of the Day may be read. The devotion culminates with the traditional Collect of the Mass for that Sunday.
V. O Lord, hear our prayer.
R. And let our cry come unto Thee.
V. Let us pray ...
Stir up Thy power, we beseech Thee, O Lord, and come: that from the threatening dangers of our sins we may deserve to be rescued by Thy protection, and to be saved by Thy deliverance. Who livest and reignest, with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, world without end.
Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to prepare the way of Thine only-begotten Son: that through His coming we mat attain to serve Thee with purified minds. Who liveth and reigneth, with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, world without end.
Incline Thine ear, we beseech Thee, O Lord, to our petitions: and, by the grace of Thy visitation, enlighten the darkness of our minds. Who livest and reignest, with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, world without end.
O Lord, we beseech Thee, stir up Thy power, and come, and with great might succor us: that by the help of Thy grace that which is hindered by our sins may be hastened by Thy merciful forgiveness: Who livest and reignest, with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, world without end.
Beginning on Christmas Eve, the violent and rose candles are replaced by white candles, which remain until the end of the Twelve Days. (Devotions associated with the Twelve Days of Christmas will be found within this venue at the proper time. Stay tuned ...)
THE ADVENT CALENDAR
Another popular devotion is the Advent calendar, which marks the days of December leading up to Christmas, irrespective of the beginning of Advent. This begins anywhere from November 27 to December 3; this year on November 30, which is also the Feast of Saint Andrew. This practice, which originated among German Lutherans in the 18th century, had origins similar to the Advent wreath, with the lighting of candles to mark the days. Eventually the use of the wreath evolved in some regions, into an elaborate structure resembling a calendar except for closed compartments, each containing a small gift, to be opened one evening at a time through Christmas Eve.
Most of us have seen inexpensive Advent calendars in card shops and church bookstores, but there are some very good ones that can entertain the children of the house, or otherwise remain as treasures over the years. One of our favorites is the Kurt Adler Wooden Nativity Advent Calendar (see image above), which comes complete with 24 magnetic figures contained behind their respective doors. Each day, a figure is removed from its container, and placed appropriately on the empty manger scene, to be completed on the night before Christmas. At a price from Amazon of just under $69 (with alternative distributors selling for a bit less), it may be a bit expensive, unless you consider it as lasting for several years, and passing it down to your children when they have families of their own.
If you order now, it will only be a little bit late.
Barring that, there are numerous alternatives to be found among Traditional Advent Calendars from Germany by Richard Sellmer Verlag.
And yet, what if you want to make your own, and you want it tomorrow? Here's a great idea. The Pottery Barn has this one at a steal for only $143.00. But hey, for a fraction of that, you could go to the arts and crafts store, find twenty-five tiny baskets, the same number of adhesive numerals, and a properly shaped cardboard or particle board, and whip up one of these puppies over the weekend.
Personally, I'd number them starting at the bottom, not the top. But hey, that's just me.
THE JESSE TREE
Another form of the Advent calendar is the "Jesse Tree." This depiction of multiple imagery is that of the ancestry of Our Lord. At its heart is a passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” (11:1) Examples in stained glass of cathedrals date to the 11th century. You can find a cornucopia of examples by clicking here or here, or you can use the image provided here. Simply click on it, print it out at its actual size, paste it on card stock, and cut out the images, hanging them on a small artificial tree on a counter top or kitchen table. This can be a wonderful learning tool for the entire family. Descriptions of various schemes can be found at fisheaters.com.
THE SAINTS OF THE SEASON
There are a number of saints' feast days which occur during the month of December, which have over the centuries developed a close association with the preparation of Christmas; among them, Saint Barbara on the 4th of December, Saint Nicholas on the 6th, and Saint Lucy on the 13th. The customs associated with them will be described as they arise in December, but if you click on the name of the saint, the folks at Fisheaters.com can give you a head start. After all, at least one of them involves baking cookies.
On a related note, we would be remiss if we did not remind you of the calendar feature at The Old Farmer's Almanac, which will show you the "red-letter days" of December (including saints) on the first of the month.
And finally, there is one more way to bear witness to the truth to your friends and relations, while at the same time just messing with their heads. Instead of Christmas cards, send them Advent Cards, like this one distributed by Wesley Brothers Comics in Durham, North Carolina, featuring none other than Saint John the Baptist saying: “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath that is to come?” Then the viewer can open the inside and see the equally cheerful greeting of the season: “May your Advent be broody and penitent.” That should be enough to warm the cockles of anybody's heart (although no one has ever explained to me exactly what cockles are, but I've heard that people have them, so …)
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It is hoped that the above can provide you and yours with a means of commemorating the season, in a way that will delight your children, and teach them something of their precious Catholic heritage. There will be more depictions and devotions as the season progresses, and we celebrate the Year of Grace here at man with black hat.
Stay tuned, and stay in touch.
(H/T to Fisheaters.com for their extensive research into Catholic customs, and also to Ryan for presenting us with the challenge.)