Advent Customs

Author: Jennifer Gregory Miller

Reprinted with permission of Catholic Culture - Copyright © 2004 - Trinity Communications 2004. All rights reserved.


Customs and Folklore

The most perfect way to embrace the spirit of Advent is to attend daily Mass and pray the Liturgy of the Hours. If this is not possible, try smaller goals, such as attending one extra mass during the week; praying the Saturday Evening Prayer with the family in preparation for Sunday; reading and discussing the readings of the Mass of the day with the family.

The members of the domestic church should also try to receive the Sacrament of Penance during the Advent season to prepare for the coming of Christ “for it is not possible coherently to celebrate the birth of him ‘who saves his people from their sins’ without some effort to overcome sin in one’s own life.” (Directory on Popular Piety, #105)

There are many customs that can be incorporated in the domestic church to teach and reinforce the Advent spirit. For example, the first Sunday of Advent is a good time for each family member to choose a secret "Christkindl" or Christ Child for whom he or she will perform little acts of love - such as a prayer, a small gift, a sacrifice, a note or a piece of candy - throughout Advent.

Another such Advent practice is that of having an empty crib or manger, which each family member will soften with straw earned by a sacrifice, a prayer or a work of mercy. After Christmas, the family will gather before the Infant Savior, in his now-padded crib, for their evening prayers or for Scripture reading.

In the Activities section you will find suggestions and directions for such customs as Preparing the Manger, an Advent Wreath, Christmas Novena, and the O Antiphons, the Jesse Tree and the Advent calendar. All these traditions involve a countdown, or some action performed each day in anticipation of Christ’s birth.

When employing new Advent customs within your domestic church it is important to remember that they are only aids, not goals in themselves. With joyful hope and anticipation, then, let us prepare for the coming of the Son of God, praying with the Church: Come, Lord Jesus, do not delay!

The Advent Wreath - History and Assembly

The Advent wreath is an old German tradition that has gained much popularity in the last few years. Most Christian homes and communities practice this custom during the Advent season. This sacramental is rich in meaning, is easy to implement and can either be simple, costing little, or very elaborate, costing more, handmade or storebought, with fresh greenery, or permanent greens.

The Advent wreath is a wreath, or circle, of evergreens, made in various sizes. It is either suspended from the ceiling by ribbons (preferably purple) or placed on a table. The devotion is usually incorporated during the family meal, or during family night prayers. Fastened to the wreath are four candles standing upright, at equal distances. These candles represent the four weeks of Advent. Three of the candles are purple, reminding us of the penitential nature of the season. A rose or pink candle is lit for the Third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete (rejoice) Sunday. The name is taken from the entrance antiphon or Introit "Rejoice (gaudete) in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice." It is reminding us that the end of Advent is almost here, and we can hardly contain our joy.

The wreath should be in a circle, a symbol of eternity, and a reminder that God has no beginning nor end. The evergreen is a symbol of eternal life and a reminder that God is immutable or unchangeable.

The appearance of the actual Advent wreath is varied—everyone has their own interpretation of the Advent wreath. The look of your family's wreath depends on how much time and creativity you have to devote. Your family can create their own special wreath, or add personal touches to a store-bought wreath. With this devotion being so popular, one can go into any craft or garden store and buy a wreath. Any religious goods store carries several varieties, and the prices range from inexpensive to very costly.

Some families want to create a new wreath every year, with everyone involved in the activity. Using evergreens, however, does add the risk of fire hazard, especially as the greens go dry. For less risk, or with smaller children or tight schedules, you may want to consider making a permanent wreath that you can reuse every Advent.

Preparing the Manger

Preparing the manger is the practice of preparing a soft bedding in the manger for the Christ Child by using little wisps of straw as tokens of prayers and good works performed through the penitential season of Advent. This is originally a French custom that quickly spread to other countries. Every night the child is allowed to put in the crib one straw for each act of devotion, good work or sacrifice performed. "Thus the Christ Child, coming on Christmas Day, finds an ample supply of tender straw to keep Him warm and to soften the hardness of the manger's boards." — from Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., 1958.

The Jesse Tree

The representation of the Tree of Jesse is based upon the prophecy of Isaiah 11:1-2: And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots: and the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and fortitude, the spirit of knowledge, and of the fear of the Lord.

In works of art the genealogy of Christ (based on Matthew 1) is frequently shown in the form of a tree which springs from Jesse, the father of David, and bears as its fruit the various ancestors of Christ.

The Jesse Tree symbols transform a Christmas tree into a "family tree" of Christ, since each ornament is a symbol of an ancestor or of a prophecy which foretells his coming. Some of the symbols included are the sun, the tablets of the Law, the key of David, Bethlehem, the root of Jesse, Noah's ark, the Ark of the Covenant, the altar of holocaust, the apple, the Paschal Lamb, the pillar of fire, manna, the star of David, Jacob's ladder, Jonah in the whale, the Temple, the crown and the scepter, the sword of Judith, and the burning bush.
The sun represents Christ as bringing eternal life and light, and is based on the prophecy of Malachi:

"But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings." The six-pointed Star of David symbolizes the lineage of Christ from the royal house of David. The burning bush symbolizes the Virgin Birth, and the prophecy of the birth is seen in the Bethlehem-emblem. The apple is a symbol of Christ, who took upon himself the burden of man's sin, and Jacob's ladder is interpreted as Christ reuniting mankind to God. The ladder has also been interpreted in a moral sense, with each of the fifteen rungs standing for a specific virtue. The lamb is one of the favorite, and most frequently used, symbols of Christ in all periods of Christian art. A typical reference is John 1:29, "The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." Noah's ark is a symbol of baptism, and Jonah in the whale symbolizes death and resurrection.

The stories of the Old Testament have been an unlimited source of inspiration for the visual arts. The burning bush was the subject of the triptych painted by Nicolas Froment in the thirteenth century. The star of David was a popular symbol in stained glass windows, as at the Cathedral of Lyons.

The Jesse Tree was an early form of design for the stained glass windows of great cathedrals, such as Chartres. In the portrayal of the descent of Christ from the line of David, there may be as few as four or five figures or as many as fifty. The twisting branches of the tree always start with Jesse and end at the top with Christ. The Tree of Jesse window in the cathedral at Chartres is full of meaning and symbolism. In the lowest panel Jesse is lying upon a couch; from his loins rises the stem of a tree which branches out into scrolls enclosing seated figures of the sons of Jesse holding the branches. Next to the upper panel is the Virgin; the upper panel holds the figure of Christ, much larger, with the dove descending from above. On either side of the panels in semicircular spaces are the prophets who foretell the coming of Christ. A border of interlacing lines and flowers resembling those in the center panel completes the design of this famous window.

At Sens Cathedral the Jesse window is a little different, for it shows not only the ancestors of Christ; a donkey on one of the branches honors the animal that played so great a part in the life of Jesus.

The Advent Jesse Tree is fairly recent practice, trying to emphasize "Christ" in Christmas by studying His roots. A home Jesse Tree can be a small evergreen tree, artificial or real, bare branch set in a sturdy pot, or a wallhanging made of felt, posterboard or wood. Each evening in Advent a new symbol is placed on the tree, the Scripture verse is read and the significance in Salvation History is explained.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville with a background in history and music. Jennifer specializes in Catholic topics, particularly the Liturgical Year. She is the concept leader and chief coordinator of the related section of She is now a mother of one and lives in Manassas, VA, and can be reached at

Veritas, 1st December 2003 / 29th November 2010