How to Celebrate the Advent Season: 5 Awesome World Traditions

Jeannie Ewing

How to Celebrate the Advent Season: 5 Awesome World Traditions

Many of our American Christmas customs lose their luster, because they become increasingly secularized and somehow clichéd.  Unfortunately, those of us in the United States tend to leap directly from Thanksgiving into the feasting of Christmas with our cookie baking, tree decorating, and gift purchasing.  We seldom slow down long enough to appreciate the tranquility of preparing our hearts and homes for the infant Jesus, which is truly why the Church offers us a period of reflection and rest called Advent.  In her infinite wisdom, the Church knew we would need to set aside a time of intention and deliberation, a time of quiet vigilance, before the feasting of Christmas arrives.

Various Advent traditions are still celebrated throughout the world today.  In our western way of life, we can adopt some of these vibrant and rich Advent celebrations from our brothers and sisters around the world.  Many of these customs are available in parts of our nation with a large population of a particular culture, but even if we do not have access to a live representation of them, we can recreate them in our own way and install a new family tradition that is sure to be beloved for generations. Learn how to celebrate the Advent season with these 5 awesome world traditions.

St. Lucy – Scandinavia and Italy

St. Lucy’s feast day is December 13, which always lands during Advent.  St. Lucy is considered the “saint of light,” which makes her an appropriate Advent figure to foreshadow the coming of the Light of the World, Jesus.  She was born of nobility and is believed to have tragically died in Sicily in the fourth century.  Because of the longest period of time for darkness that surrounds the winter solstice, many people in Scandinavian countries have mingled this Catholic saint’s celebration with pantheism.  However, in both Italy and Norway, the Catholic tradition of St. Lucia Day is very much thriving.  

Traditionally, the oldest girl in the household will arise early in the morning on this feast day and dress as St. Lucy, wearing a white dress with red sash and a crown on her head with candles.  She then presents delectable pastries, such as cinnamon rolls and cookies, to the rest of the family.  While feasting, the family may sing some hymns together.  What’s especially beautiful about this tradition is that St. Lucy reminds us of the true, lasting light in the midst of seemingly interminable darkness – both literally and figuratively.  You can recreate this celebration in your own way quite easily, either adopting all or some of the traditional practices.

St. Nicholas - Eastern Europe

While western countries celebrate St. Nicholas’s feast day on December 6, eastern European nations consider December 19 the appropriate feast day.  Clearly the Americanized version of Santa Claus originated from this benevolent saint, who was said to have been a miracle worker during his lifetime in fourth century Asia Minor (now Turkey). The way people celebrate St. Nicholas Day differs, ranging from young Polish boys dressing up as bishops and begging for money to give to the poor to receiving a small gift under one’s pillow (Ukraine) or in one’s clog (a Dutch tradition).  A variety of non-Catholic Christians acknowledge and celebrate St. Nicholas Day, including Lutherans, Methodists, and Anglicans.  Catholics, of course, observe his feast day during Mass, which many traditional fans of this Advent custom will attend in addition to dressing up and leaving their shoes out to be filled with trinkets and treasures.

Unlike the direction of gluttonous gift exchanges at Christmas, St. Nicholas Day is a simpler, more practical way to celebrate the true saint who lived long ago and who was a true reflection of what people call the “Christmas spirit” today.  Celebrating St. Nicholas Day is an opportunity to teach our children about the real “Santa Claus” while reminding them that receiving smaller gifts can help them to focus on the full meaning of the Incarnation as it approaches.

Las Posadas - Mexico

Originating in Spain, this nine-day celebration is primarily held in Mexico and includes a dramatic reenactment of the Holy Family being rejected for a place to stay.  In this drama, two people dress up as Our Lady and St. Joseph as they traveled to Bethlehem while several houses are designated as stopping points along the way.  Only one of these houses is the “inn,” where Mary and Joseph are welcomed with hymns and a lighted candle in the window.  Onlookers follow the couple, sometimes carrying poinsettias and accompanied by musicians.  Sometimes live animals are used, such as burros, and people may dress up as angels and shepherds.  Many parishes with a large Spanish-speaking population offer this reenactment in the parish neighborhood, followed by fellowship and feasting.  All are typically welcome to attend.

La Novena del Nino - Latin America

In many South American countries, families will recite a set of Advent prayers during the nine days before Christmas.  Similar to the celebration of Las Posadas, La Novena del Nino (“Ninth to Baby Jesus”) includes feasting and singing Christmas carols as a community.  This beautiful tradition was created by a priest in Ecuador in 1700, Fr. Fernando Larrea Jesus, at the request of a teacher.  Many years later, a religious sister named Mother Maria Ignacia added the joys to each prayer.  

The prayers begin on December 16 through December 24 and specifically honor Our Lady, St. Joseph, the Magi, and the Christ-child.  Some people choose to read these prayers solo, while others prefer to read them as a community.  In each case, the collection of prayers is often presented in a book and includes several prayers that are recited every day during the novena:

  • Prayer for Every Day
  • Prayer to the Blessed Virgin
  • Prayer to St. Joseph
  • Daily Considerations
  • Joys
  • Prayer to Baby Jesus

The Aspirations of the Child Jesus include poems with the O Antiphons. For a full list of the daily prayers for this beautiful novena Advent tradition, please visit this website.   

Misas de Aguinaldo – Philippines

Misas de Aguinaldo (“the gift Mass”) is primarily celebrated in the Philippines, though some Spanish-speaking countries offer a variation of this Advent custom called Misa de Gallo (“shepherd’s Mass”).  Like the La Novena del Nino, this celebration lasts for nine days, starting with December 16 and ending on Christmas Eve.  Interestingly, the Mass begins before sunrise, typically around 4:00 a.m., because originally the farmers needed to be in their fields immediately subsequent to the Mass due to harvest season.  Another interesting aspect of this celebration is that the color of the vestments worn during these specific nine days is white, which is only authorized for this occasion.  Otherwise, the obvious violet garments would be worn instead.  Following each Mass, Filipinos purchase and consume specific breakfast delicacies that are reserved for this holiday, such as bibingka (cooked rice cakes), puto bumbong (purple steamed rice pastries), and salabat (ginger tisane).

During this time, Filipinos decorate their homes with parols, star-shaped lanterns that are said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem or perhaps were used to light the way for worshippers as they sojourned to their 4:00 a.m. Mass.  Parols are considered as iconic to Filipinos as Christmas trees are to the western world and are often colorfully adorned.  

International Advent celebrations can easily be incorporated into our customary way of preparing for Christmas.  Because we infrequently concern ourselves with the eternal aspect of Christmas, instead opting for the secular version of consumeristic acquisition of material goods, all Catholics (and even non-Catholic Christians) would widely benefit from adopting or modifying these traditions as part of a family Advent preparation.

Learning about the Misas de Aguinaldo and La Novena del Nino is a beautiful way for us to meditate on a daily basis about the Incarnation through the novena prayers and by attending Mass.  Even if we don’t have access to the specific Masses that these cultures offer, we can still participate in the best way possible by printing out the novena prayers and spending some time meditating on them before or after attending daily Mass.  What an incredible way for us to transition from Advent waiting to Christmas festivities.

Many other Advent traditions exist that were not listed or named in this article, as well.  Virtually every country on the planet has very specific customs that are indigenous to its people and history, all of which contribute a more vibrant and full portrait of the beauty and meaning of Advent.  While we find the time to don our homes with greenery and twinkling lights, perhaps we could pause long enough to consider the symbolism of these festive decorations. 

We may be familiar with the Advent wreath or even particular Advent hymns, but making a calendar with St. Nicholas Day, St. Lucy’s Day, and the novena prayers and Masses for next year’s Advent preparations may invite us to a deeper understanding and appreciation for this season of watching, waiting, and vigilance.  

What are your advent traditions?