I am blessed to live in a very diverse Archdiocese where Mass is celebrated in 14 languages. My Archdiocese mirrors the salad bowl that is Miami. Nowadays, cultural anthropologists prefer that metaphor over the more popular melting pot.
In the melting pot metaphor, different cultures are assimilated with the aim of forming a homogenous society. In the salad bowl (or mosaic, or kaleidoscope) metaphor, the different cultures mix, but do not merge—each retaining its distinct heritage and traditions.
The uniqueness of cultural customs is on full display during the season of Advent. This season of joyful expectation takes its name from the Latin Adventus which means arrival. It’s a time in which the faithful prepare themselves both to celebrate Christ’s birth and anticipate his second coming in judgement in the last days.
The season of Advent began to appear in sacramentaries around the year 600. Since then, many different customs around the world have arisen to help better celebrate the preparatory season.
The Advent Wreath: The origins of the advent wreath are found in the folk practices of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples, who, during the darkness of winter, gathered wreaths of evergreen and lighted fires as signs of hope in a coming spring and renewed light. The wreath itself is usually made of pine sprigs drawn into a circle, symbolizing God’s eternity.
Affixed to the wreath are four candles—three purple and one rose or pink—which are lit one on each of the four Sundays of Advent. The rose candle, also called the joy candle, is lit on the Third Sunday. This tradition comes from the time when Advent was observed more penitentially with strict fasting, similar to Lent. The fast was broken on the Third Sunday of Advent—called Gaudete or Rejoice Sunday—in anticipation of the great event to come.
Wreaths have long been a sign of victory, while the light from the candles—increasing weekly—symbolically dispel the darkness. As the candles burn, they mark the passing of time until Christmas.
The Creche: The origin of this custom dates back to St. Francis in the 1200s, when he travelled to Greccio, an old hill town of the province of Rieti in Italy. It is said he visited the city to celebrate Christmas and noticed that the chapel was too small to fit all the worshippers. Near the town square he erected a manger and brought live animals to reenact the birth of Jesus. Soon, inspired artists all over the world began making their own nativity sets.
Santons: Crafted in the Provence region of southeast France for over 300 years, santons, or little saints are small hand-painted terra-cotta nativity figurines. The makers of santons, known as santonniers, take their models from the people of 18th century rural France rather than the Bethlehem of Jesus’ time. True santons are never made of any material other than terra-cotta—a reference to God making human beings from clay.
Las Posadas: Las Posadas is a nine-day Hispanic celebration that commemorates Mary and Joseph’s hardship in finding a location where Jesus could be born. From the 16th of December through the 24th, actors playing the holy couple—joined by people from the community—reenact Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging through a neighborhood procession. The tradition originated in Mexico, but is now celebrated in many Latin-American countries.
Oplatki: On Christmas Eve, many families of Polish and Slovak background share a tradition of eating oplatki—unleavened wafers embossed with Christmas images. Small pieces are exchanged among family members and a blessing imparted. The custom shadows the Eucharistic celebration. It is also common to place a portion of the wafer in an envelope along with a Christmas card so distant loved ones could still partake in the family tradition.
Advent Calendars: There are many different methods used in modern Advent calendars to count down the days to Christmas Day. Drawing chalk lines, displaying small religious pictures or opening tiny windows to reveal sweet treats have all been used to mark the days until Christmas. In the U.S., Advent calendars grew in popularity thanks to President Eisenhower, whose grandchildren were photographed using one.
The Feast of Saint Lucia: In the Nordic countries of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland, Saint Lucia is venerated on December 13th through a special ceremony. A young girl portraying the Saint dons a white dress with a red sash around her waist and wears a crown of candles bordered by foliage. On the morning of December 13th, Saint Lucia awakens each member of the house with a cup of coffee and a tray full of saffron buns or ginger cookies.
Advent devotions can involve even very little children and help them in forming their understanding of the Incarnation and learning about preparing for the coming of Christ at Christmas.
For adults, Advent traditions remind us to turn our minds away from a commercialized interpretation of the season towards one of stillness and reflection. During Advent we rehearse our witness to the world as we prepare the way of the Lord and make room for the arrival of Christ in our hearts.
How about you? Do you have any special Advent traditions? Does you parish do anything that is unique to your culture? Do you do something at home? Share and let’s learn together!