Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Advent in Merry Old England

In the Catholic Church in the west at least today, Advent is emphasized as a time of waiting, preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ--in the future and in history. There are some elements of penitence: vestments are purple; we do not sing the Gloria at Sunday Masses; we hear often about the counter-cultural nature of Advent as we wait to celebrate Christmas and then celebrate Christmas for a season and not just a day. That's the position of Advent overall.

Before the English Reformation, Advent was a season of penitence and fasting--except I suppose where the Boy Bishop handed out treats and declared holidays from December 6 to December 29!!--preparing for the feast of Christmas with its joyous celebration. There were no marriages during the season of Advent (or of Lent) and the Ember Days (Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays after December 13, the feast of St. Lucy) of the Advent season were Fast Days. As Christmas was one of the great feasts of the year when the laity would receive Holy Communion, parishioners prepared by receiving the Sacrament of Penance, examining their consciences, confessing their sins, and fulfilling the penance given by the priest.

As Eamon Duffy comments in both The Stripping of the Altars and The Voices of Morebath, the seasons and feasts of the Church year were integrated parts of the social and personal life of Catholic Christians in England before the English Reformations of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I. They provided order and remembrance; most events would be dated by a religious date: a child was born two days after Michaelmas; a couple were married five days after Christmas; a father died on the eve of Candlemas. (Wouldn't help much to use the movable feasts of Easter and Pentecost!) The feasts and seasons provided a pattern of work and rest, fasting and feasting, life and death. That pattern is certainly something lost after the Reformation Parliament.


  1. As I read books about Medieval life, I become envious of all the holidays they celebrated. Life was hard and short, so the medieval mind was always reminded the fragility of life. These feast and fasts not only provided relief from the monotony of day-to-day existence, but helped people grow closer to God.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Theresa. I like your blog! The destruction of that unity of life was devastating for the Christian religion in England.

  3. Oh how I wish that we could culturally install Advent into the Western World again - Celebrate Winter from Christmas Eve thru Candlemas. Now it's been all about consumerism - yes even as far back as Charles Dicken's time. Get those register receipts in before the new year!
    So now we are soooo disjointed, celebrating Winter for only three days after the solstice. After that, an epidemic of melancholy sets in.

  4. For a revealing insight into pre-reformation England - and I guarantee anyone reading it will rue losing those lost days - is William Cobbett's "A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland", written 1824-27.

    Chapter XV1 - Impoverishment and Degredation of the People by the Reformation, where it compares former times with the 18th and early 19th centuries is especially informative.

    Ironically, William Cobbett was a protestant and, as far as we know, never converted to the Catholicism he so favourably describes.

    For Le Grand Retour and the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart, Our Lady of Fatima pray for us who have recourse to thee.

  5. Thanks, salvemaria, for the reminder about Cobbett. I highlight his contributions to the re-evaluation of English Reformation history--along with Father John Lingard's--in the revised, second printing of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation. G.K. Chesterton wrote an excellent appreciation of Cobbett, too.

  6. You're right about the prevailing atmosphere, tubbs, but in our homes at least we can maintain the advent of expectation and then celebrate the Incarnation: delay putting up the Christmas tree and keep the Nativity set out longer!