THE CATHOLIC LECTIONARY WEBSITE by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.
Resources for Liturgy and Prayer
for the Seasons of Advent and Christmas
[Updated with Resources for 2020-2021]
The ADVENT Season:
Advent is the liturgical season that precedes and prepares for Christmas. It is a season of hope and of longing, of joyful expectation and of peaceful preparation. Many symbols and traditions are associated with Advent, especially the Advent Wreath with its four colored candles (three purple and one pink), but also Advent calendars, special Advent music, food, processions, and other traditions that may vary from one culture or region to the next. Here are a few interesting things to know about Advent:
When and how long is Advent?
For most Christians, the Advent Season always begins four Sundays before Christmas; so it is rarely four full weeks long, but only between three and four weeks, depending on what weekday Dec. 25 happens to be in a certain year. (click here for more specifics on the calendar)
The First Sunday of Advent, which marks the beginning of the new liturgical year for the Church, could be as early as Nov. 27 or as late as Dec. 3.
The Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called "Gaudete Sunday" (from Latin, meaning "Rejoice!), because the "Entrance Antiphon" of this Sunday's Mass is taken from Paul's letter to the Philippians: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near." (Phil 4:4+5b)
The Fourth Sunday of Advent could be as early as Dec. 18, a full week before Christmas (as in 2016 and 2022), or as late as Dec. 24, making it the same day as "Christmas Eve" (as in 2017 or 2023).
Advent technically ends of the afternoon of Dec. 24, since that evening, Christmas Eve, begins the Christmas Season.
Most Eastern Orthodox and other Eastern Christian Churches have a "Nativity Fast" (now often called "Advent Fast"), which usually lasts forty days before Christmas; it may begin on Nov. 15 (for those Churches that celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25), or in late November (for those Churches that celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7 or 8).
What does the word "Advent" mean?
When capitalized, "Advent" usually refers to "the coming of Christ into the world" or to "the liturgical period preceding Christmas"; it may also refer to the "Second Coming" of Christ (the "Advent of our Lord").
In secular English, "advent" (not capitalized) may refer to any "coming" or "arrival," especially of something so important that it radically changed a whole culture (e.g., "The advent of electricity" or "The advent of the computer age").
The word is derived from the Latin adventus ("arrival, approach"), made up of the preposition ad- ("to, towards"), the verbal root ven- (from venire, "to come"), and the suffix -tus (indicating verbal action).
The word is very similar in many other European languages: Advent, Advento, Avent, Avvento, Adviento, etc.
What are the traditional colors of Advent?
In the Roman Catholic Church, the official liturgical color for most of the Season of Advent is violet. Only on the Third Sunday of Advent is a rose (pink) colored candle lit, as a symbol of joy; the priest may also wear rose vestments on this Sunday.
Many Anglicans and some Protestant Churches use blue instead of violet throughout Advent, although they may also use rose/pink on the Third Sunday.
Other church decorations (altar cloths, banners, etc.) will often have combinations of violet, pink, and blue throughout the season. Liturgically-minded churches will avoid greens and reds (the secular Christmas colors), and will wait until the Christmas season to use decorations with white, silver, and gold colors.
What is an Advent Wreath?
Many churches and families prominently display an evergreen wreath with four candles throughout the Advent Season.
It is traditionally made of some type or mixture of evergreens (fir, spruce, juniper, holly, etc.), symbolizing the continuation of life in the middle of the cold and dark winter (in the northerly latitudes, at least).
Advent wreaths traditionally include three purple/violet candles and one pink/rose-colored candle, which are arranged evenly around the wreath, although some people use four violet or four white candles.
Only one purple candle is lit during the first week, two in the second week, three (incl. the pink one) in the third week, and all four during the fourth week of Advent; the gradually increasing light symbolizes the approach of Christmas, the birth of Jesus, the light of the world.
Since the rose candle is not lit until the Third Sunday of Advent, it is best to start on the First Sunday of Advent lighting the purple candle located directly opposite the pink one, and then to continue clockwise around the wreath in the following weeks. Thus, one could go in the following orders: 1-right, 2-front, 3-left (rose), 4-back; or 1-front right, 2-front left, 3-back left (rose), and 4-back right.
In many churches, a large wreath is ritually blessed at the beginning of the first liturgy on the First Sunday of Advent. Families can also use a smaller Advent wreath in their homes, which they themselves can bless (click here for some Advent Wreath Blessings).
Families can gather around the wreath daily for some brief Advent prayers and readings, especially at the time of the evening meal, lighting the appropriate number of candles for each week. Click here for some Advent Family Prayers; or see the Blessing Rituals for Advent, from the Shorter Book of Blessings.
Some Christian traditions assign specific symbolism to each of the candles:
1) The Prophet's Candle, symbolizing Hope;
2) The Bethlehem Candle, symbolizing Faith;
3) The Shepherd's Candle, symbolizing Joy;
4) The Angel's Candle, symbolizing Peace.
Some churches and families add a fifth candle (white) in the middle of the wreath for Christmas Eve or Day; others continue using the same wreath throughout the Christmas Season, replacing the colored Advent candles with fresh candles that are white or gold, symbolizing the arrival of Christ, the light of the world.
What are the liturgical readings for the Sundays of Advent?
Each of the four Sundays of Advent has its own special readings and characteristics:
First Sunday of Advent - The readings look forward to the "End Times" and the coming of the "Day of the Lord" or the "Messianic Age"; the Gospel is an excerpt from the Apocalyptic Discourse of Jesus in one of the Synoptic Gospels.
Second Sunday of Advent - The Gospel readings focus on the preaching and ministry of John the Baptist as the precursor or forerunner of Jesus, the one who came to "Prepare the Way of the Lord," by calling the people to turn back to God.
Third Sunday of Advent - The Gospel readings continue to focus on John the Baptist, who talks about the one who is to come after him, while the first and second readings convey the joy that Christians feel at the world's salvation through the incarnation of thje Savior.
Fourth Sunday of Advent - The Gospels tell of the events that preceded and prepared for the birth of Jesus, including the dreams of Joseph (Year A), the Annunciation (Year B), and the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (Year C).
What are the liturgical readings for the Weekdays of Advent?
There are actually two sets of weekday readings for the Advent season:
Readings for the weekdays in the first three weeks, but only up to Dec. 16: the Gospel readings are excerpts from various chapters in Matthew and Luke; the first readings are mostly from the book of the prophet Isaiah.
Readings for the weekdays from Dec. 17 to Dec. 24: the Gospel readings cover all of Matthew 1 and Luke 1, sequentially; the first readings are selected thematically from various prophetic books of the Old Testament.
The weekdays from Dec. 17 to Dec. 24 also make use of the "O Antiphons," not only during Evening Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours, but also in the Alleluia verse before the Gospel at Mass.
What other liturgical celebrations can occur during the Season of Advent? Several "Feasts" and "Memorials" of saints can be celebrated on the weekends of Advent, but most of them are omitted if the usual date happens to fall on a Sunday in a particular year, since these celebrations are considered less important than the Sundays of Advent.
(click here for details)
Nov. 30 - Feast of St. Andrew, the Apostle - may occur just before or during the first week of Advent, depending on the year.
Dec. 6 - St. Nicholas - although the day is only an "optional memorial" on the Roman liturgical calendar, this popular saint gave rise to the gift-giving tradition now associated with "Santa Claus"; in certain countries, Dec. 6 is still a day when parents give simple gifts (often fruit or nuts) to their children.
Dec. 8 - Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary - a "Holy Day of Obligation" in the United States; if Dec. 8 falls on a Sunday, this Solemnity is transferred to Monday, Dec. 9.
Dec. 12 - Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe - only ranked as a "Memorial" in much of the world, but considered an important "Feast" in the United States and many Latino countries.
The "Memorials" of several other saints can be celebrated during Advent, but only if they fall on a weekday, not on Sunday:
St. Francis Xavier (Dec. 3), St. Ambrose (Dec. 7), St. Lucy (Dec. 13), St. John of the Cross (Dec. 14), and a few other "optional memorials" (St. John of Damascus, St. Nicholas, St. Juan Diego, St. Damasus I, St. Peter Canisius, and St. John of Kanty).
Christmas is the annual feast commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, a little over 2000 years ago. For Christians, it is not just a single day (Dec. 25), but an extended liturgical season of joy and celebration, involving many different symbols and traditions, special music and activities, which vary significantly among different countries and cultures. Here are a few interesting things to know about Christmas:
When and how long is Christmas?
Christmas Day, liturgically called "The Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord" in the Catholic Church, technically includes both Christmas Eve (Dec. 24, after sunset) and Christmas Day (Dec. 25) itself. For religiously observant Christians, however, Christmas is not just one day, but an entire season, lasting anywhere from 12 days to 40 days in different ecclesial traditions.
In the modern secular world, Dec. 26 already begins the "after-Christmas" sales, and Christmas decorations are often removed before New Year's Day! The "Christmas Season" (for shopping, decorating, parties, music, etc.) used to begin just after Thanksgiving Day (in the United States), but now seems to begin just after Halloween (Oct. 31), if not before! When people hear about the "Twelve Days of Christmas" (or sing the song by that title), they might think it refers to the last 12 shopping days before Christmas.
In most Christian traditions, however, the "Christmas Season" properly begins with Christmas Eve (after sunset on Dec. 24), while the "Twelve Days of Christmas" refers to the period from Dec. 25 to Jan. 5.
In different Churches, the Christmas Season might end on Jan. 6 (the traditional date of the Feast of the Epiphany), or might last until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (usually the Sunday after Epiphany), or might even last all the way to Feb. 2 (the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, 40 days after Dec. 25).
Was Jesus really born on Dec. 25?
Probably not! We simply do not and cannot know the exact day on which Jesus was actually born.
However, Jesus' birth has been celebrated on Dec. 25 since the early fourth century, when most of the Roman Empire adopted the Christian religion. It replaced the mid-winter Roman festival of "the birth of the sun god" (sol invictus), celebrated just after the winter solstice.
The fact that we don't know the exact historical day or date of Jesus' birth should not bother anyone, or mean that Dec. 25 is somehow "wrong." In some countries and cultures, even in today's world, the exact day or date of a baby's birth is not remembered or celebrated. When such people move to another culture that places greater importance on the date of people's births, they must choose a date randomly.
Even when someone's birth date is known, the day on which they celebrate it may be different for various reasons: a family might gather on a nearby weekend rather than on a weekday; an office or community might have a combined monthly birthday party; or a school might have a party in the Spring or Fall for all children whose birthdays actually occur during the summer vacation months).
What does the word "Christmas" mean?
"Christmas" properly refers to the day when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, Dec. 25 on most calendars, or to the season (Christmastide or Christmastime) which begins on that day (or the night before).
In the modern secular world, "Christmas" may also refer non-religiously to Dec. 25, or to the mid-winter legal holiday (in the Northern hemisphere; or a mid-summer holiday below the Equator) observed on that day.
Etymologically, the word derives from Old English "Cristes mæsse" (lit. Christ's festival). It is similar to Dutch Kerstmis, but is significantly different in derivation and meaning in many other European languages: German Weihnachten ("Blessed Night"), Italian Natale, Spanish Navidad, French Noël (all ultimately derived from Latin natalis, "birth"), Scandinavian jul (similar to English yule).
What are the liturgical colors for Christmas?
The official liturgical color of the Christmas Season for most Churches is white or gold, not green and red, as many people assume.
Popular culture often associates Christmas with a combination of greens and reds (such as in Poinsettia plants), in addition to the use of white (snow?) and silver, gold, or other shiny metallic colors (stars? bells? musical instruments?).
By contrast, green is the proper liturgical color for "Ordinary Time," while red is used on feasts of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles, or martyrs.
What is a Crèche and where does this tradition come from?
In the weeks before or during the Christmas season, many people set up a "manger scene" in their churches, homes, or public places, depicting the baby Jesus surrounded by Mary, Joseph, angels and shepherds, sheep and other animals, and possibly also the magi or "wise men."
The French word crèche is similar to German Krippe and English "crib", while the word "manger" comes from the French mangeoire (derived from mangier = "to eat"); these words correspond to Latin praesēpe or Greek phatne (Luke 2:12), all of which originally referred to a "feeding trough" for animals, but also came to be used for an "infant's bed."
The Gospel of Luke says, "While they were there [in Bethlehem], the time came for her [Mary] to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." (Luke 2:6-7)
The tradition of displaying a crèche did not arise until the mid-12th century; it is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, who wanted to emphasize the poor and humble circumstances in which Jesus was born.
The use and design of crèches reflects a wide variety of artistic and cultural traditions. Some people set up a simple crèche long before Christmas, add more figures as Christmas approaches, with the baby Jesus not placed in the manger until Christmas Eve, and the wise men not arriving until Jan. 6.
A church's or family's crèche is usually blessed on Christmas Eve with a simple blessing prayer. For online samples, see EWTN or USCCB .
What other liturgical celebrations usually occur during the Season of Christmas?
A variety of other feasts and memorials are celebrated during the Christmas Season, some closely related to the biblical accounts of Jesus' birth, others commemorating seemingly unrelated saints, even including some martyrs!
Some of these are celebrated on fixed dates on the calendar, others are always on Sundays, and thus have moveable dates. See my chart of Moveable Feasts during the Christmas Season for more details on the following:
Dec. 26 - The Feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr
Dec. 27 - The Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist
Dec. 28 - The Feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs
Sunday after Dec. 25 - The Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (transferred to Dec. 30 if the Sunday is Jan. 1)
Jan. 1 - The Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God (always on New Year's Day, the Octave Day of Christmas, which takes precedence over the Feast of the Holy Family)
Jan. 6 or the Sunday after Jan. 1 - The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord (traditionally Jan. 6; but in some countries, such as the USA, it is now transferred to the first Sunday after New Year's Day)
Sunday after Jan. 6 - The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (transferred to Monday, Jan. 8 or 9, if Epiphany is celebrated on Sunday Jan. 7 or 8, respectively, in certain years.
Less important "Memorials" or "Optional Memorials" of certain saints may also be celebrated, but are omitted in years when their dates fall on a Sunday or on one of the moveable "solemnities" or "feasts" listed above:
Dec. 29 - St. Thomas Becket, bishop and martyr; Dec. 31 - St. Sylvester I, pope; Jan. 2 - Sts. Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, bishops and doctors of the Church; Jan. 3 - Holy Name of Jesus; Jan. 4 (in USA) - St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, religious; Jan. 5 (in USA) - St. John Neumann, bishop; Jan. 6 (in USA) - Bl. André Bessette, religious; Jan. 7 - St. Raymond of Peñafort, priest
What are the liturgical readings for the Christmas Season?
Christmas itself is the only day on the liturgical calendar which has four different sets of biblical readings for the four different Masses that can be celebrated at various times: Vigil Mass (Christmas Eve), Mass at Midnight, Mass at Dawn, and Mass during the Day.
The Gospel readings for the first three Masses contain excerpts from the biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus (from Matthew and Luke), while the Gospel reading for the Mass of Christmas Day is the Prologue of John's Gospel (John 1:1-18).
The first readings are various selections from the book of the prophet Isaiah, while the Responsorial Psalms, the Second Readings, and the Gospel Acclamations are chosen thematically.
The readings for the other major feasts of the Christmas Season include the biblical accounts of the various events being commemorated.
For example, the Gospel reading for the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord is always Matthew 2:1-12, the biblical account of the visit of the Magi from the East. Similarly, the Gospel readings for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which concludes the Christmas season, are the accounts of the Baptism of Jesus as found in Matthew 3, Mark 1, and Luke 3, for Years A, B, and C, respectively.
The first and second readings for all feast days are chosen thematically from a variety of Old Testament books and New Testament letters.
For most weekdays during the Christmas season, the first reading is taken from the First Letter of John.
For detailed charts listing all the readings for particular days, see the following pages of this website: