Advent is the perfect time to make a retreat, and opportunities abound, whether it’s overnight retreats, days of reflection, parish missions or evening events. Stepping away from the hustle and bustle is enticing, especially during this Year of Faith when Pope Benedict XVI calls us to conversion and evangelization.  

However, not all of us are able to take advantage of those opportunities. It can be especially hard for families who are already pinched for time and money as Christmas approaches. Yet, we want to observe Advent in a pronounced way. What can we do? 

With some prayerful and inspired ingenuity, we can form our own Advent retreat at home. While it’s optimal to remove ourselves from our usual surroundings, we can make an effective retreat at home, simply by changing our schedule and attitude. All it takes is planning and self-discipline. 

The planning begins by molding our home atmospheres in such a fashion that they foster Advent yearning. We can keep the Christmas decorations tucked away and put up Advent decorations instead. Why not trim the banister and book case with evergreen garland and purple and pink ribbons rather than Christmas lights? Could the Christmas tree be left bare until Christmas Eve or decorated slowly over the weeks of Advent? Erecting a prayer corner will draw family members into Christ and set the tone for prayer and reflection. Dressing it with Advent colors will make the season even more apparent. We want to surround ourselves with clear indications that it is Advent. 

What we do on the outside won’t sway us much if we don’t also do things on the inside, too. Participating in Advent traditions and devotions will help to increase the longing and open our hearts more fully to the coming of the Savior at Christmas. We may have traditions we’ve carried on for years, but perhaps now, particularly in this Year of Faith, we can look at them with “new eyes” as we try to re-discover their richness and benefits. Old, familiar Advent devotions can be made new again by practicing them with more deliberation or in a different order or manner. We may want to add a new devotion or two. The point is to do whatever it takes to lead our minds and hearts more and more deeply into the Advent mystery. 

On the following pages are traditions and devotions that can make our Advent more meaningful and fruitful. By choosing the ones that work best for our families and consciously and consistently incorporating them into our Advent observance, we can maintain a rhythm, atmosphere and demeanor that will form a grace-filled and life-changing Advent retreat at home. 

With so many customs and devotions at our disposal, it may be difficult to choose if we don’t already have certain ones ingrained in our Advent traditions. Perhaps choosing is easier if we keep in mind the goal of forming an Advent retreat at home, with an eye on the Year of Faith and its call to a deepening and greater understanding of our Catholic faith.  

What will most help us to maintain a retreat atmosphere in our home and an Advent attitude in our hearts? Those, then, are the customs and devotions that we should use. With determination and persistence, we can make this Advent the most holy and fruitful one ever and set the tone for a blessed Year of Faith. 

Marge Fenelon is the author of “Strengthening Your Family: A Catholic Approach to Holiness at Home” (OSV, $14.95).

Advent wreath

Advent calendar
Mark the days of the season with an Advent calendar. Thinkstock

German in origin, the Advent wreath is probably the most popular Advent custom. The wreath consists of a ring of evergreens with four candles — three purple and one pink — to represent the four weeks of Advent. It symbolizes the thousands of years from Adam to Christ during which the world awaited the coming of the Redeemer. The first purple candle is lit on the First Sunday of Advent and another candle is added on each of the following Sundays, with the pink candle lit on the Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday) to encourage joy amid the penitence. Many families choose to keep the Advent wreath on the dining table and to light the candles at prayer and meal times. The individual or head of the family may want to bless the Advent wreath before its first use. Formulas for the Advent wreath blessing can be found in “Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers” (USCCB Publishing, $34.95).

Jesse Tree

The Jesse tree’s name is taken from Isaiah 11:1, in which Jesus is referred to as a shoot coming up from the stump of Jesse, the father of David and Jesus’ many-greats-grandfather. The tree itself represents Christ’s ancestry (family tree) and ornaments are hung — one each day of Advent — with symbols on them to represent Jesus’ ancestors and the various events of salvation history based on the day’s Scripture readings. Jesse trees can be made on a poster board or cloth banner, or a real tree branch can be placed in a stand. There are numerous online resources with directions for making a Jesse tree and ornaments. 

Apparently, the Jesse tree tradition sprang from Christian art, and in particular, the ornate stained glass windows of the European churches of the Middle Ages. The art and windows depicted scenes from the life of Christ, thus serving both an aesthetical and catechetical purpose. 

Nativity Scene

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with the invention of this tradition in 1223, when he formed a live Nativity Scene in order to bring the Christmas message to life during Midnight Mass for the town of Greccio, Italy. Not only did it enliven the Nativity for the townspeople, but the custom caught on and is imitated in homes and worship spaces throughout the world. Some families like to place the Nativity Scene figures around the house, moving them a bit closer to the stable each day of Advent. Other families set the figures in the scene, but keep the Baby Jesus figure hidden or covered until Christmas Eve. Still others set up the scene, but place the Magi figures in another part of the house and move them a little each day until they reach the Christ Child on Epiphany. It’s customary to bless the Nativity Scene before setting it up, and a formula can be found in the USCCB’s “Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers” or online. 

Advent Crib

This tradition is a variation of the Nativity Scene and incorporates the Advent striving of prayer, penance and almsgiving. A crib is made out of cardboard, sticks or wood and placed in a prominent spot in the home. There can be a crib for each individual, or one for the entire family. Paper, cotton, or even real straw is used to make the crib soft for the Baby Jesus. With every act of love or penance, a “straw” is added to the crib in hopes of filling it by Christmas Eve, at which time a baby doll can be placed in the crib to represent Baby Jesus. Some families like to bless the crib(s) before using them, and a formula can be found in the USCCB’s “Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers” or online. 

Advent calendar

Advent calendars, an old German tradition, come in a wide variety of forms and styles, but the purpose is always the same: Mark the days of Advent as it gets closer to Christmas. The calendars usually have a door or pocket that is opened each day, inside of which is a Scripture passage, message or symbol of Christmas. Some even hold little pieces of chocolate. 

The first Advent calendars were primitive, at least by today’s standards. Families made chalk lines on the wall to count off the days of December leading up to Christmas. The first Advent calendar as we know it was made in 1851 by hanging little pictures on the wall, one for each day. The first printed Advent calendar appeared in 1908, which was comprised of little pictures affixed to a piece of cardboard. Shortly thereafter, Advent calendars with little doors were produced.  

Christ Candle

A large, white candle is decorated with symbols of Christ using craft items such as sequins, ribbons, old Christmas cards, or holly. The candle is lit on Christmas Eve to represent the birth of Jesus and then lit throughout the days of Christmas in celebration of his coming. Some families light the candle throughout the year, especially after Easter to represent Christ’s Resurrection. In this Year of Faith, the Christ candle can be used year-round to encourage us in our striving to deepen our faith. 

Mary Candle

Either a separate candle or the Christ candle can be used. A blue veil is placed over the candle on Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, to represent Mary’s holiness and her carrying of the Infant Jesus in her womb. Also, Marian symbols, ribbons and pictures can be added to increase the Marian presence and act as a reminder of Mary’s selfless yes to being Mother of God and her joyful anticipation of his birth. Special Marian songs can be sung and devotions said in veneration of Mary. 

Christmas Tree

Christmas tree

The Christmas tree seems to have become a universal symbol of Christmas, even for those who do not believe in God. We Catholics know that there’s more to it than that, and so the Christmas tree custom holds religious meaning for us. We might remember that Adam and Eve were not allowed to eat the fruit of one tree, and our Lord died upon another. Christmas trees usually are a type of evergreen, which reminds us of Eternity. The lights we place on the tree are reminiscent of the stars in the sky and God’s beautiful creation. Some suggest that the ornaments are reminders of the gifts given to the Christ Child by the Magi. 

No one knows the origin of the Christmas tree with absolute certainty, but many sources ascribe it to St. Boniface in the eighth century. It’s said that St. Boniface gave the fir tree to the Druids to use in place of the oak tree, a symbol of their idol. He’s quoted as saying, “The fir tree is the wood of peace, the sign of an endless life with its evergreen branches. It points to heaven. It will never shelter deeds of blood, but rather be filled with loving gifts and rites of kindness.” Legend also has it that Martin Luther was the first to decorate the Christmas tree in the 16th century. A sparkling group of snow-covered evergreens on a moonlit night caught his eye and inspired him to set up a similar scene indoors, using candles to represent the sparkling snow and in celebration of Jesus’ birth. 

Today, it’s customary for families to bless their Christmas tree before or after they decorate it. The USCCB offerings a formula for Christmas tree blessing in “Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers,” and there are many variations online. Some families like to set the Christmas tree up at the beginning of Advent and decorate it slowly as Christmas approaches as a way of increasing the Advent anticipation. 

Las Posadas

Translated into English, the Spanish Las Posadas means “The Inns” and is a Christmas novena beginning Dec. 16 and commemorating the search by Joseph and Mary for a place to stay on the Holy Night. Families gather at a different home (chosen in advance) each night of the novena. Traditional posadas start with a procession with candles and hymns that tell the story of the Holy Family asking for lodging for the night. On each of the first eight nights, the procession passes through each room of the house, and then Joseph and Mary are turned away. On the ninth night, the families prepare the Christmas crib in a scene much like the Nativity sets with which we’re all familiar. In some areas, it’s customary to include holy Mass as part of the procession. After the Mass and procession, refreshments are served, including an array of ethnic dishes, and families enjoy a meal and more singing together before the night’s end. Among some groups, it’s tradition for the children to be presented with a piñata. 

Las Posadas originated in Mexico in the 16th century, presumably by Franciscan friars working among the Aztec peoples. The friars asked permission from Rome to hold a novena of nine Christmas Masses to represent the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy and to teach the people in a more lively and tangible way about Jesus’ birth. The novenas also served to replace the Fiestas del Sol, nine-day celebrations of the virgin birth of the Aztec sun god, Huitzilopochtli and served to help Christianize the native peoples. 

Christmas baking

It seems that nearly every country, especially those in Europe, has handed down traditional recipes for holiday breads, pastries and cookies. It’s thought that the custom stems from the teaching that Jesus is the Bread of Life, and so we bake special treats to remind us of his “sweetness.” For example, from France we have “brioche,” a flaky, rich-flavored bread. From Germany, we have “Christstollen,” a sweetbread with a criss-cross pattern that reminds us of the Child wrapped in swaddling clothes. “Melachrino” is a Greek spice cake, and “Cassata,” or Cream Tart. There is an endless list of cultural Christmas goodies, but they all have the same purpose — to symbolize Jesus — and signal the near approach of his birth. 

Christmas plays

For parishes and families throughout the country, Advent is filled with scripts, costumes, rehearsals and excitement as the children prepare to dramatize the story of the Holy Family on stage. Acting out the Christmas story makes it more concrete for children and adults alike, and in many communities, Christmas wouldn’t be the same without this time-honored tradition. It’s assumed that the Christmas play originated with St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century, when he formed a living Nativity Scene during Midnight Mass in Greccio, Italy. From there, the idea caught on and is imitated in a range of simple to elaborate ways around the world.