The History of the Development of Advent
The development of a liturgical season preparatory to Christmas is Western in its origins and celebration. The dual origins of Advent are still visible in the double focus of the contemporary season which reflects both the end time, the second coming of Christ, and prepares for the celebration of Christmas, the commemoration of the first coming of Christ.
Our first accounts of Advent come from Spain and Gaul.
– In the canons of the Synod of Saragossa (380), the laity are reminded of their obligation to be in church on a daily basis from December 17 through January 6.
– In 5th century Gaul we hear of an ascetical fast of three days a week beginning on or near St. Martin’s Day (November 11) and extending to Christmas. While fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays was an ancient Christian tradition (Didache, 1st century), the addition of Monday appears to mark off the season.
The designation of December 17–January 6 may well coincide with the pagan celebration of Saturnalia, a Roman festival focused on a ribald celebration of the pagan god Saturn. The beginning of Advent’s core (December 17–December 24) could be in this case a Christian ascetical practice to counter the ribald pagan celebration.
The Gallican fast, on the other hand, may have found its origins in the Celtic monastic practice of triannual forty-day fasts, a practice which soon became mandatory for laity also. These ascetical practices of Gaul seem to provide the criteria for the later liturgical season. In Gaul, the season of Advent (varying from four to six weeks) took on a penitential dimension paralleling the early medieval Lent, with the use of the color purple, the dropping of the Gloria and the Alleluia from eucharistic liturgies, and the dropping of the Te Deumfrom the liturgy of the hours. The adoption of Celtic penitential practices and the rising emphasis on judgment at the parousia color the Gallican season of Advent, exemplified by the sequence Dies Irae, a hymn composed for the beginning of Advent.
In Rome, the origins of Advent seem to be a combination of Gallican influence and indigenous tradition. There is already evidence of a pre-Christmas fast at the end of the 4th century in Rome, a fast that may not have any relation to Christmas. Also related to the time of year but perhaps originally independent of Christmas are the Ember days, quarterly fast times of recollection. Gregory the Great (late 6th century) witnesses to a liturgical tradition of four Sunday Masses and three Ember day Masses in preparation for Christmas, which stresses the coming commemoration rather than the judgment themes seen in the Gallican tradition. In the 7th century, the composition of the poetic “O Antiphons” exemplifies this preparation for the solemnity of the nativity, and by the 8th and 9th centuries, the sacramentaries reveal the position of Advent at the beginning of the church year, replacing Christmas as the head of liturgical new year. The liturgical traditionalism of Rome made itself felt in the widespread adoption of the Roman four week Advent (replacing the longer Gallican and Spanish Advents) but by the 12th century Rome was influenced by the penitential aspects of the Galilean Advent and dropped the Gloria from the Mass, retaining the Alleluia as a vestige of an earlier non-penitential approach to Advent.