Slowly but surely, Advent is making a comeback. It may not seem so in the culture at large, where it would appear we’d be just as well moving Christmas to August. However, as the consumerism of the season turns into self-parody, many are longing for a more meaningful celebration. The result is that Advent has been getting more press time.
Unfortunately, once the family has put up an Advent wreath and sung a couple of rounds of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” a disturbing thought creeps in: now what? In other words, how should one live Advent other than by saying it’s not Christmas yet? Advent is indeed meant to be a season of penitence. Seeking silence, giving to charity, and going to confession are all practices I strongly endorse. But Advent is also supposed to be a season of longing, of looking forward to Our Lord’s return by getting excited about his liturgical coming at Christmas. For that, we need practices that fill us with expectation. We need traditions.
Unfortunately, given Advent’s long neglect, most families don’t have any, which is where this post comes in.
If you were reading our blog last year, you probably know where this is going (in fact, the rest of this post may seem really familiar). The great thing about being Catholic is that the Church is truly universal, and where traditions are lacking we can look to the broader Catholic world for guidance. I’d like to share with you what I consider perhaps the most meaningful of the Advent traditions I grew up with in Colombia, the Advent Novena, in the hopes that you may be able to incorporate it into your Advent celebrations as well.
What is the Advent Novena?
Not quite what you think. Like all other novenas, the Advent novena comprises a set of prayers to be said during nine days, but it is also much more. The novena is light, friendship, song. It is, in a sense, a perfect balance of everything truly human, the sacred and the secular brought together in effortless harmony. Starting on December 16th, families, friends, and neighbors begin gathering every night to count down the days until Christmas. There are carols, holiday dishes, prayers, meditations, and companionship.
The way it usually works is that people gather for the novena sometime around 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. After ever everyone is settled in, the host for the day begins prayers (if several families are participating, usually hosting duties are rotated day to day), and once these are done, people sing their favorite Advent or Christmas carols (bringing some instruments, even just very basic noisemakers, is definitely a plus!).
After getting in a good session of caroling, it is time to eat! Colombians like to break out the natilla (a custard dish) and buñuelos (fried cheesy breads). I’ll be providing recipes in case you’re feeling adventurous, but feel free to celebrate with your own favorites. After this point, people usually just sit and chat, sign more songs, eat (and on occasion even dance) until bedtime. And then the next day, you do it all over again!
Isn’t it a bit much to do this for nine days straight?
Yes, and no. As I said, ideally you’ll find at least a couple of more households who are willing to rotate hosting duties. And you don’t have to do the full thing every night–feel free to just do some nights quietly with your own family, or just by yourself if you live alone. But try to stick with it all nine days, and to make it as communal as possible. By the end of it, you will feel truly ready for Christmas, and the day will not seem like a blur that just comes and goes, but rather as the culmination of a process of preparation.
So where do I get the prayers?
During the past few years, a couple of translations into English have started popping up on the Internet. Unfortunately, they are not very good (sometimes I wonder if they’re not the product of Google Translate). One part that is almost entirely lost in these translations is a section made up of short rhyming verses inspired by the “O Antiphons” from the Liturgy of the Hours. It’s a truly delightful section, theologically rich and yet always a favorite with kids, but prose translations simply don’t do it justice. For these reasons, I’ve decided to come up with my own translation, the link to which you can find below.
If organizing a gathering of friends for the 16th is short notice, just start at home on your own, but I encourage you to pick at least one day or two this Advent to actually host a gathering. Several people tried it last year and wrote to say they had loved it. Do let us know in the comments section if you decide to take up this tradition.