Where Do all Our Advent Traditions Come from Anyway?
Advent is well under way – we just celebrated Gaudete Sunday! We are in week three of four in the Advent season, and are in the midst of the celebrations and traditions. Some of these traditions we do because we have always done them, but where do they come from? It isn’t too late in the season to learn where some of the most popular Advent traditions come from and why they are still celebrated today. With Christmas now only a little over a week away, let us continue preparing our minds and hearts for the celebration of Christ’s birth by reminding ourselves (or learning for the first time) where the most popular Advent traditions that we see in the United States come from.
The Advent Wreath
Advent wreaths are a very popular way to celebrate this time of preparation. Even growing up in a home that did not have too many liturgical living traditions, my family pulled out our Advent wreath every single year. In recent years, it has become more popular for parishes to also have an Advent wreath present somewhere in the parish.
An Advent wreath is typically made up of an evergreen circular wreath with four candles – three purple and one rose. The precise origins of this wreath are debated, but there seems to be evidence that pre-Christian Germanic peoples had circular wreaths with to bring light in the dark days of Winter and look forward to the days of Spring to come.
The story goes that Christians took on this tradition in the evangelization of the Germanic peoples, and by the Middle Ages there was a widespread adoption of evergreen wreaths and garlands in Christian homes leading up to and during the celebration of Christmas. With the adoption of the wreath came the development of special symbolism for each aspect of the wreath. The use of the evergreen while the world grows dark and other plants wither and die symbolizes the triumph of life over death that Christ makes possible for men. The circular shape symbolizes God’s eternity – He who has no beginning or end.
The candles for the Advent wreath bring with them a note of controversy. Though wreaths have been popular in Christian homes during the season of advent for hundreds of years, the Advent wreath as we know and use it today allegedly has Protestant origins in nineteenth century Germany with red and white candles.
German immigrants brought the tradition with them to the United States and by the mid-1900s it was a popular tradition in Protestant and Catholic circles, although there was a move to change the color of candles from red (still typically used by some Protestants) to the more liturgical purple and rose. The use of purple candles in Advent reminds us that it is a season of penance and preparation – we must make ourselves ready for the coming of Christ. The rose for Gaudete Sunday is a reminder of the joy that is coming: Christmas is near and may we delight in the wonder of God becoming man.
The Jesse Tree
Today’s Jesse Trees are usually paper trees on the wall or a miniature tree with ornaments that represent the ancestors of Jesus with various symbols. It is a way to tell the story of salvation history and Jesus’s lineage. The name comes from the father of King David, Jesse, and from the prophecy of Isaiah that “A rod shall shoot forth from the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Is 11:1).
The history of the Jesse Tree goes back to medieval illuminated manuscripts, stained glass windows, and altar paintings that depicted the ancestors of Jesus on a tree leading up to Christ at the top. It has been present in Christian artwork for centuries. Using it as a preparation during Advent with ornaments that are added throughout the season appears to be a creation of the early 1900s, but it can be a beautiful tradition to help teach children the story of salvation history and to help them connect Old Testament figures to the birth of Jesus. It can provide an opportunity to talk about how Jesus is the fulfillment of hundreds of years of anticipation and that we now are anticipating his return in glory. There are now various resources and ideas across the interwebs that share different ideas for ornaments to add for each day of December, leading up to the 25th.
The Nativity Scene
It might seem obvious to us to have a nativity scene in our homes and in our parishes to remind us of Jesus’s birth in a stable. Many churches also host live nativity scenes and nativity plays to tell the story passed down to us from St. Matthew and St. Luke. Though there have always been artistic depictions of the birth of Christ, having figures in the home or live scenes has not always been as prevalent.
In medieval Europe, “Mystery Plays” were very common performances in public places to tell the stories from the Bible to common people who, more often than not, did not understand the Latin spoken during Mass. Unfortunately, people sometimes turned these plays into opportunities for lighthearted entertainment value and thus there was some papal disapproval of them.
St. Francis of Assisi had a great devotion to the Christ child and had a burning desire to help reignite devotion in others during the Christmas season. In 1223, he requested permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a representation of the birth of Jesus in a cave he had transformed into a hermitage in the Italian village of Greccio. What we know of this event comes from St. Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis. Bonaventure tells us that Francis brought in a live ox and donkey, constructed a manger, and also had a live Mary and Joseph. He invited the town of Greccio to come and witness the scene, and preached earnestly and joyfully with such emotion that he could not even say the name of ‘Jesus’ without weeping. The people were moved, and within a few years widespread devotion to the Holy Family in the stable became widespread. St. Francis cannot be credited with the first nativity scene or the first live-action nativity, but with his joy and fervor he inspired his fellow Christians then and throughout the centuries since, with a particular love for the humble setting of the God-man’s birth.
Since then, many different traditions have developed with nativity scenes around the world and in different families. In my family, we put out the whole scene but withheld placing baby Jesus in the manger until after we returned home from Christmas midnight Mass. Some families put out the stable and have Mary and Joseph travel around the room to the stable until Christmas Eve. Likewise with the Wise Men, they travel towards the manger until Epiphany when they are ready to bestow their gifts on baby Jesus. Interactive nativities like this are especially great to teach children (and to remind ourselves) about the time of preparation and anticipation Mary, Joseph, and the Jewish people were in waiting for the arrival of the Messiah.
The Christmas Tree
Around the end of November, you begin to see ‘tree lots’ pop up everywhere. People begin bringing full-sized (and miniature) trees into their homes. This is not something we do at any other time of year – so where did this tradition of a Christmas tree come from? Along with many of our other above traditions, the Christmas trees origins are a little disputed, but likely go back to the Middle Ages.
Some link the tradition to St. Boniface, the Apostle to Germany, who cut down an oak tree that the people worshipped. Around Christmas eve in 722, he came upon a group of people about to sacrifice a child to the oak tree. To save the child, he cut down the oak and began to preach about Christ. As he preached, a fir tree grew up in the place of oak tree and he said that the tree, pointing to the heavens pointed towards Christ, and the triangular shape spoke of the Trinity. He proclaimed the fir tree as the tree of the Christ child, cut it down, and brought it into the town and decorated it with candles to remind the people of Christ, the Light of the World.
Other traditions say that the “Mystery Plays” mentioned above also included a ‘Paradise Play’ that told of Adam and Eve and the Fall. A central prop in the play was the ‘Paradise Tree’ – usually an evergreen tree decorated with apples. These plays were performed on Adam and Eve’s feast day – December 24th, Christmas Eve. People then imitated the plays and wanted to bring these trees into their homes to remind them of the true Tree of Life and Light of the World – Christ himself. The widespread popularization of Christmas trees around the world was aided by German immigrants to the United States in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds as well as German-born Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, who popularized the Christmas tree in the United Kingdom. Even secular Christmas trees around the world still feature many of the original Christian symbols – lights, stars, angels, and ornaments which all point to the birth of Christ.
These are just some of the things we use to help us celebrate this holy season. Hopefully, they are directing you and your family deeper into the mystery of God taking on a human nature and being born among us. May you use the remainder of Advent well to prepare your heart for the celebration of Jesus’s birth, and to watch and pray for his Second Coming.