Advent &Christmas
History, Customs, Prayers and Meditations

Advent & the Advent Wreath  |  1st week of Advent  |  2nd week of Advent  
3rd week of Advent
  4th week of Advent  | Christmas Eve
The History of the Crèche (Nativity Scene)
The True Story of St. Nicholas, and how he became Santa Clause 
Links to Advent essays, reflections, homilies, prayers and customs


Advent and The Advent Wreath

Advent is a season that begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, when the Church commemorates the centuries of waiting for the arrival of the Savior promised to the Jews in the Old Testament. For Christians, the season of Advent is a time of quiet meditation in preparation for the Christmas celebration in honor of the birth of Jesus. 

Each of the four weeks before Christmas in churches, and in many homes, candles will be lit on an Advent wreath. The history of using a lighted wreath of greens to celebrate the anticipation of the birth of Christ dates to the 9th century AD, when Christians adopted the candle-lit wreath as a symbol of the new faith. 

The circle is an ancient symbol, used by many ancient cultures to symbolize eternity. The evergreen branches are also ancient symbols for eternal life. Christians took these ancient symbols and "baptized" them, giving them Christian meanings. The candles symbolized Christ, the Light of the World. Together, the Advent wreath then, is a message, that symbolizes Christ, the Eternal Light of the World. 

By the 16th century Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, throughout Europe commonly used these symbols to celebrate their hope in Christ. Homes, churches, and public buildings all across Europe used Advent wreathes. 

Traditionally, the Advent wreath is made of four candles in a circle of evergreens. Three of the candles are purple, and one is pink (rose). Each day the candles are lighted, perhaps before the evening meal- one candle the first week, and then adding another each succeeding week, until December 25th. 

Purple, symbolizes penitence (sorrow for wrong-doing) and humility. Advent is a time of solemn preparation for the Feast of Christmas - the dawn of new Light in the world and the fulfillment of Hope, with the birth of Jesus. Although most people tend to equate the Christmas season with joy and anticipation, during our Advent reflections we pray and meditate on the reasons why God had to send us a Savior. Thus, Advent is actually seen as a "penitential" season.

Rose symbolizes joy. The rose colored (pink) candle is burned beginning with the third week of Advent to symbolize the "half-way" point in the dark time of waiting. The third Sunday of Advent is called "Gaudete Sunday". Gaudete is the Latin word for "joy," and on Gaudete Sunday we focus on our anticipatory joy in the coming of our Savior. 


Ideas for prayers to accompany the lighting of the Advent candles:



The first Sunday of Advent, the wreath of evergreen branches is laid out, and the first candle is lit with a prayer of HOPE. 

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; on those who lived in a land as dark as death a light has dawned. You have increased their joy and given them gladness; They rejoice in Your presence as those who rejoice at harvest... (Isaiah 9:1-2)

Dear God, may the blessings of Christ come upon us, brightening our way and guiding us by his truth. May Christ our Savior bring light of hope into the darkness of the world. Amen



On the second Sunday of Advent, two purple candles can be lit. God is faithful and enriches us in all things, and able to keep us steadfast. Remember, with the God, all things are possible. Including and especially, peace, for ourselves, and for the whole world.


The light of thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us:  

thou hast given gladness in my heart...

In peace I will sleep, and I will rest:

For thou, O Lord, alone make me secure, and hast settled me in hope.
(Psalm 4: 7, 9-10) 

O Lord, bring peace into our hearts and into our homes. Make of us a peaceful people, so that all who see us, see only you. Help us to be the people that you want us to be, so that we may bring all to your holy peace. Amen.



On the third Sunday of Advent, the third candle is added with a prayer of Joy. This is the week to light the rose-colored candle. We read together from Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, "Always rejoice. Pray without ceasing. In all things give thanks for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you all. Extinguish not the spirit. Despise not prophecies. But prove all things: hold fast that which is good. From all appearance of evil refrain yourselves. And may the God of peace himself sanctify you in all things: that your whole spirit and soul and body may be preserved blameless in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." 

Lord, may we always remember, from the moment we rise, through all the actions of our day, until we lay down again to sleep at night, that we are called to the joy of discipleship, to live constantly in the presence of God. Help us to pray without ceasing, and, most of all, to "rejoice always" in the gift of Your presence. Amen




The fourth Sunday, the focus is LOVE. All four candles are lit each evening during this week. In the Gospel readings, we will walk with Mary through the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Magnificat, and then the Birth of John the Baptist. The center of action is not someone who is rich and cultured, but rather poor and humble. The place is not the busy streets of Jerusalem, or the halls of governance and authority in Rome, but rather the countryside, and small villages. The priest Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, can't speak, because he doubted the word of the Angel Gabriel. The unmarried maiden, Mary, who believed, sang a song of joy and victory, a song of hopes fulfilled, and of love that has come to fruition. God walks His way into Humanity in the company of people that are just like us. It is a story of redemption for all people who believe and respond with obedience to the call of the Lord. 

And Mary said: 

My soul doth magnify the Lord! And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour! Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid: for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. Because he that is mighty hath done great things to me: and holy is his name. And his mercy is from generation unto generations, to them that fear him. He hath shown might in his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble. He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath received Israel his servant, being mindful of his mercy. As he spoke to our fathers: to Abraham, and to his seed, forever. 

O Holy Word of God, Jesus Christ, help us to remember that all things are in your hands! Come, fill our hearts with love, let our hearts burn with love - love of only You! Amen.




Place a white candle in the center of the wreath, to be lit on Christmas Eve along with the other four, to symbolize Jesus as an answer to the prayers of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love, of the preceding weeks. 

Let us sing the psalm of King David, sing of our joy in the coming of the Lord: 

"The mercies of the Lord I will sing for ever. I will sing out thy truth from generation to generation. For thou hast said: Mercy shall be built up for ever in the heavens: thy truth shall be prepared in them... The heavens shall confess thy wonders, O Lord..."

"Thou rulest the power of the sea: and calm the motion of the waves... Thine are the heavens, and thine is the earth: the world and the fullness thereof thou hast founded... Justice and judgment are the preparation of thy throne. Mercy and truth shall go before thy face: Blessed are the people that know jubilation. They shall walk, O Lord, in the light of thy countenance: And in thy name they shall rejoice all the day, and in thy justice they shall be exalted... Blessed be the Lord for evermore. Amen" 



The History of the Crèche 
(Nativity Scene)

My mother's father is from Italy, and when I was a little girl he would tell me of the beautiful Nativity scenes that would be erected all over Italy. In our city, one church has built a three-sided stable, with life-sized figures of the Holy Family, animals, shepherds, and angels. (One time someone asked where the Magi were, and they were told with a smile that they didn't arrive until later!)

We first read about the birth of Christ in the Gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew. They tell us about the manger, the shepherds and the three Wise Men. They gave us an opportunity to envision what it was like the day that Christ was born. This scene has been recreated by many sculptors and painters. 

Many may not know this, given the popularity of the Nativity scene in most Christian homes today, but the popularity of the Nativity scene did not occur until after St. Francis of Assisi reenacted the very first living Nativity in the year 1223, in a cave in the hills above the monastery at Greccio, Italy. The word "crèche" is probably a French derivative of Greccio (pronounced Grecho). 

St. Francis asked for, and got permission, from Pope Honorius III to hold a very special celebration that year during Christmas. On that night a living child was placed in a crib as a real ox and a real donkey stood nearby. Hundreds climbed up to the cave to watch and to witness for themselves the miracle that occurred 1,223 years ago in the small town of Bethlehem. Five years later, in 1228, one of Francis' biographers, Thomas of Celano, wrote:

"It should be recorded and held in reverent memory what Blessed Francis did near the town of Greccio, on the feast day of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, three years before his glorious death. 

In that town lived a certain man by the name of John (Messer Giovanni Velitta) who stood in high esteem, and whose life was even better than his reputation. Blessed Francis loved him with a special affection because, being very noble and much honored, he despised the nobility of the flesh and strove after the nobility of the soul. Blessed Francis often saw this man. 

He now called him about two weeks before Christmas and said to him: "If you desire that we should celebrate this year's Christmas together at Greccio, go quickly and prepare what I tell you; for I want to enact the memory of the infant who was born at Bethlehem, and how He was deprived of all the comforts babies enjoy; how He was bedded in the manger on hay, between an ass and an ox. For once I want to see all this with my own eyes."

When that good and faithful man had heard this, he departed quickly and prepared in the above-mentioned place everything that the Saint had told him. The joyful day approached. The brethren were called from many communities. The men and women of the neighborhood, as best they could, prepared candles and torches to brighten the night. 

Finally the Saint of God arrived, found everything prepared, saw it and rejoiced. The crib was made ready, hay was brought, the ox and ass were led to the spot... Greccio became a new Bethlehem. The night was made radiant like the day, filling men and animals with joy. The crowds drew near and rejoiced in the novelty of the celebration. Their voices resounded from the woods, and the rocky cliff echoed the jubilant outburst. As they sang in praise of God, the whole night rang with exultation. The Saint of God stood before the crib, overcome with devotion and wondrous joy. A solemn Mass was sung at the crib. The Saint, dressed in deacon's vestments, for a deacon he was, sang the Gospel. Then he preached a delightful sermon to the people who stood around him."

Nativity scenes immediately became immensely popular, and were recreated all over Europe. Initially, churches were the only ones that erected them, but soon many rich and prominent citizens had their own created. Some went to extremes and commissioned well known sculptors to make them a Nativity set. Clothes were specially made for each figure and in some cases jewelry was included in the wardrobe. Finally, even those who were not wealthy began to build their own small Nativity scenes. Soon you were able to see the beauty of this miraculous scene throughout Italy, and then, all the world, decorated in many different ways. 

So - when you enjoy your family crèche this year, remember St. Francis of Assisi, and maybe whisper a little prayer of thanks, that he listened to the voice of the Holy Spirit, and gave us all a very beautiful gift, that we can still enjoy to this very day! 




St. Nicholas - the real "Santa Claus"

St. Nicholas is the 4th century saint who inspired our modern figure of Santa Claus. He was born near Myra, a port city on the Mediterranean Sea that linked the seaports of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Nicholas came from one of the city's wealthy merchant families, but he was not spoiled by his family's wealth. 

One day, by chance, Nicholas heard about a rich man in Myra who lost all his money when his business failed. The man had three daughters. With nothing to eat, the man in desperation decided to sell one of his daughters into slavery. At least then, the rest of them might survive. 

That night Nicholas, with a small bag of gold in his hand, softly approached their house, and, tossing the gold through an open window, quickly vanished into the darkness. Some say it had landed inside a stocking, that had been hung up by the fireplace to dry, and that is where the tradition of hanging up Christmas stockings came from. 

The father quickly ran out of his house see who threw it there. He caught up with Nicholas, and asked him, "Why did you give us the gold?" Nicholas is said to have answered simply "Because you needed it,"  "But why didn't you let us know who you were?" the man asked again. "Because it's good to give, and have only God know about it." 

Years later, Nicholas was chosen to be the bishop of Myra. We are told that when the former bishop of Myra died, the people gathered with the neighboring bishops in the cathedral to pray and ask God to tell them who the next bishop should be. One man said that he'd had a dream, that someone would come through the cathedral door as they prayed, and that he should be their choice. And yes, you know it! Nicholas was the one who came into the cathedral! Immediately the people proclaimed him as their bishop, because they all knew him and his good deeds, and knew that he was meant by God to lead them. 

Nicholas continued his habits of kindness and good works as a bishop. He offered help to anyone in difficulty, often quietly walking away afterwards, without waiting for thanks. Often his acts of kindness were done anonymously. Still, his reputation as a holy man grew and grew, even spreading to distant cities that had never seen him. 

In Germanic languages, Nicholas is "Claus", and Saint Nicholas is "Sinter Claus" - so "Santa Claus" is simply St. Nicholas in German. In Germany, Switzerland and Holland it became the custom for children to hang their stockings or put their shoes by the fireplace on the night before the Feastday for Saint Nicholas,  December 6th. During the night, parents would fill the children's stockings with small toys, fruits and nuts, or small coins, in memory of St. Nicholas's kindness and generosity. This custom was popularized in America by the Dutch Protestants of New Amsterdam, which later became New York City.

It wasn't until the late 1800's, in America, that the kind and generous Saint Nicholas became associated with the round-bellied, red-suited "jolly old elf" we know as Santa Claus. Writer Clement Clark Moore wrote a poem for his children, that was later published in a newspaper in Upstate New York. 

The real Saint Nicholas was never portrayed that way - fat, in a silly red suit, with a pipe, a floppy hat and a sleigh. In Christian art, was always depicted as a tall, slender man, in bishops robes, with his bishop's miter. The reindeer and sleigh, and all the rest was simply an invention that Moore came up with to entertain his own children. Moore, in fact, never intended to his poem to be publicly published!

St. Nicholas is one of the world's most beloved saints, and the image of St. Nicholas is seen more often than that of any other saint or world leader. Pictures of St. Nicholas were found on Byzantine seals; in the later Middle Ages nearly four hundred churches were dedicated in his honor in England alone; and he is said to have been represented by Christian artists more frequently than any other saint, except the Virgin Mary. St. Nicholas is venerated as  patron saint of sailors in the East, and in the West, he is the patron saint of children. 

St. Nicholas is probably the most popular of all in Russia. With St. Andrew the Apostle, he is patron of the Russian nation. In fact, so many Russian pilgrims came to Bari, where he is buried, before the Russian Revolution, that the Russian government supported a church, hospital and hospice there! He is a patron saint also of Greece, Apulia, Sicily and Loraine, and of many cities all over the world. Oh, and by the way, St. Nicholas, not St. Patrick is the patron saint of the city of Galway, in Ireland!

Here is an ancient Eastern Orthodox Russian prayer to St. Nicholas:

O most holy Nicholas, 
thou extraordinary Saint of the Lord, 
our loving defender, 
and ready helper in sorrows everywhere: 
help us sinners and hapless ones in life: 
entreat the Lord God to grant us 
remission of all of our sins, 
that we have committed from our youth,
and all our life, 
by deed, word, thought, and all our senses; 
And in the passing of our souls, 
help us wretched ones; 
entreat the Lord God and Maker of all creation, 
to deliver us from trials and eternal torment: 
that we may always glorify the Father, 
and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, 
now and forever, and unto ages of ages. 



Advent essays, reflections, 
homilies, prayers and customs

Christmas in a World of Excess - A reflection from, on the difference between having more, and being more. "Balancing the spiritual meaning of Christmas with its more-worldly celebration is no easy task." 
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Lessons of Prophet Isaiah and Peter the Fisherman - A homily by Capuchin Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, given in Rome, December 10th, 1999. "The common denominator of every sin is to look for our own interest and not for Christ's. In other words, to live for ourselves, rather than living for the Lord.
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Lessons from Moses and St. Paul - Encounters with God - A homily by Capuchin Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, December 21, 1999. Moses and Paul were both called twice by name by the Lord: "And when God calls twice, it is the prelude to something important. The common ground of both calls was the sending of Moses and Paul on a mission -- a mission preceded by an encounter with God. What can the faithful learn from these two figures of salvation history, extending from Abraham to Christ, during this period of preparation for Christmas?" 
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Caryll Houselander - Wood of the Cradle, Wood of the Cross - This reflection on surrender to God, and the Infant of Bethlehem, is taken from Caryll Houselander's book Wood of the Cradle, Wood of the Cross
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Elsa Chaney - The Twelve Days of Christmas - Ideas for the celebrations of Christmastide in the home, the parish, school and apostolic groups. The first part covers the last day of Advent with the O Antiphons, a Christmas novena, preparing the gifts, decorations, crib, and cookery. The rest covers Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, from Christmas to Epiphany and Epiphany. Even includes a Christmas play. Complete book in a text document, available online. 
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Elsa Chaney - The Advent Tower, the O Antiphons - Explanation of the Advent Tower and the 'O' Antiphons. Part of 'The Twelve Days of Christmas Kit.' 
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Helen McLoughlin - Family Advent Customs - A presentation of practical suggestions for sanctifying the Advent-Christmas season in the family. Invites full family participation. Contains instructions for the Advent Wreath, creating a manger scene, Mary's candle, and the Jesse Tree. Also contains Advent hymns and symbols, O-antiphons, prayers, Blessing of the Christmas tree, and numerous other ideas for putting Christ back into Christmas. Complete book in a text document, available online. 
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Helen McLoughlin - Christmas to Candlemas in a Catholic Home - In this sequel to 'Family Advent Customs,' the author outlines ways and means by which the 40 days of the Christmas season may be observed in a truly Catholic manner. Prayers, songs, recipes, observances for the many feast days from December 25 to February 2--all in the holy, happy spirit of hearts filled with Christmas grace.
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Women for Faith and Family - Celebrating Advent & Christmas: A Sourcebook - Excerpts from the book CELEBRATING ADVENT AND CHRISTMAS, A SOURCEBOOK FOR FAMILIES.
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P. Stewart Craig - A Candle Is Lighted - This booklet shows how the feasts of the Church were once celebrated, how they could be revived, and adapted, and how new methods of celebration can be created for the family. 
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Burton & Ripperger - Feast Day Cookbook - Two well-known writers, Katherine Burton and Helmut Ripperger join forces to describe the special and traditional feast day dishes of many lands. We learn the forgotten origin of many well-known dishes, as well as numerous recipes for special occasions. 
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Jesse Tree Symbols - A list of the Jesse Tree Symbols and their explanations. Used in Advent, this also includes some of the symbols used in the 'O' Antiphons. 
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Rev. E.J. Sutfin - True Christmas Spirit - This book's main purpose is to develop the fundamental dogmatic background of the Christmas Liturgy, and then to suggest ideas of every sort by which the spirit of the Church may be brought to children. 'The Church always finds old and new treasures of grace in her storehouse of scripture and tradition. We must take every means of helping our children to find them.' 
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Therese Mueller - Our Children's Year of Grace - Ideas for use in the home by parents who wish to teach their children to live throughout the year with Christ and his Church. The purpose of this booklet 'is to pave the way for a closer, holier and more vital union of the Home with Christ and His Church.'
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John Paul II - Discover Glory of God Revealed in Christ - Pope John Paul II Homily, Vespers, First Sunday of Advent November 30, 1996 - "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" 
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John Paul II - "Rejoice, the Lord is near" - "Advent is the liturgical season that prepares us for the Lord's birth, but it is also the time of expectation for the ,definitive return of Christ", the Holy Father said in the homily he preached at the Roman parish of Our Lady of Valme on Sunday, 15 December 1996, the Third Sunday of Advent.
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Abbot Gueranger O.S.B. - Meditation on Advent - The Lord has not come but he is nearer than before, and therefore the Church lessens somewhat the austerity of this penitential season by rejoicing, a visible sign of this being the pink vestments in place of the purple. Also known as Gaudete Sunday.
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Abbot Gueranger O.S.B. - The 4th Sunday of Advent - "We have now entered into the week which immediately precedes the birth of the Messias." Taken from Volume I of "The Liturgical Year."
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