Back to top
Submitted by Marcin Bąk on Mon, 12/16/2019 - 08:30

"And he that shall come will come, and will not tarry." (Heb 10.37)


In the Catholic Church Advent is the period before Christmas, the second most important holyday after Easter and although today none of us can imagine a lavish celebration of Christmas without a special setting, gifts, Christmas tree and a Christmas supper, it was not always so.

"Adventus" in Latin means "arrival". In Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Scripture, "adventus" meant the coming of the Son of God into the world through incarnation. The incarnation took place through Mary, so this period is closely related to the person of Our Lady, although her presence does not come to the fore here. The four-week Advent period is closely linked to the introduction of the Nativity of the Lord into the liturgy. Interestingly, the time of special preparation for Christmas began not in St. Peter's capital, but in Gaul and Spain. "As for Gaul, Bishop Tours Perpetuus († 490) introduced the obligation of fasting on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the period following St. Martin's Day (11 November) until Christmas. This period, called "Quadragesima Sancti Martini", was originally believed to have lasted until the Epiphany of the Lord, and was associated with the traditional baptismal celebration on January 6. It was therefore a preparatory time for the sacraments of initiation, as was the 40-day fast before the Passover. In Spain, the first testimonies of asceticism before the celebration of the Nativity (although this type of preparation was not yet explicitly called Advent) date back to the year 380. Canon 4 of the Synod of Zaragoza (380) recommended to the faithful that from December 17 to Epiphany they should zealously participate in liturgical celebrations, renouncing other activities during this time. It seems that the motives behind this decision were similar to those of Bishop Perpetuus of Tours," writes Fr Andrzej Żądło in his work "Liturgy and forms of popular piety in Advent in the light of the "Directory for popular piety and liturgy". In Rome, the special time of preparation for Christmas is mentioned only in the second half of the sixth century.

Prepare the way

It was not until the time of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) that Advent crystallised as a liturgical period and, despite minor differences, has survived to the present day. From the very beginning, Advent was dominated by the penitential-ascetic spirit and it has remained so to this day. The faithful waiting for God's Son are reminded of the words of the prophet Isaiah "Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him." and St. John the Baptist "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.". In the later centuries, the spirit of repentance was accompanied by a joyful expectation of the Saviour’s coming.

Pope Paul VI in his motu proprio "Mysteria paschalis celebrationem" states that Advent is "a period of preparation for the feast of the Nativity of the Lord, through which we remember the first coming of the Son of God to people. At the same time, it is a period in which the memory of Christ's first coming directs the soul towards the expectation of his second coming at the end of time. For both these reasons Advent is a time of pious and joyful expectation.”

In Polish tradition Advent took a prominent place in the preparation of the faithful for Christmas. It was celebrated all states with dignity, solemnity, seriousness, in an atmosphere of expectation and moral intensification.

In the liturgical calendar, Advent is accompanied by morning Masses called Rorate. The Rorate are celebrated in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Their name comes from the Latin words of a song often sung at their beginning - "Rorate caeli desuper", or "Drop down, ye heavens". This unique Eucharist begins "at sunrise" with the lights off - they only come on during the solemn hymn "Glory to God at Heights". This liturgy of light, often underestimated today, makes a great impression on the participants of the congregation.

The faithful should have a lantern or a candle on the Rorata, because in this liturgical period they are of great importance. The lit "roratka" candle symbolizes the presence of the vigilant Mary. The faithful gathered in the church vigil together with her for the coming of the Saviour. The lit candle also refers to the words from the Gospel of St. Luke " the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death". (Luke 1,78-79). The lit lantern reminds us of the evangelical story of the maids waiting for their bridegroom (Mt 25, 1-13). Many parishes still hold competitions for the best handmade lantern among children. Small participants of the Rorata also have special calendars in which the priest or catechist stamps each coming to the Holy Mass. The most persistent ones are finally rewarded and praised in front of the whole congregation.

Roratas of the Kings

The tradition of attending Rorata made itself at home on Poland in the 13th century and quickly became a common form of piety. Already in the Middle Ages, the custom of starting Advent with the participation of crowned heads was established. On the first Sunday of Advent, the king approached the altar before the Mass and placed a beautifully decorated candle on the candlestick. Then came the representatives of the states with their candles, i.e. the primate, senator, landowner, knight, burgher and peasant - and each of them repeated: "I am ready for God's judgment". Zygmunt Stary, Zygmunt August, Queen Bona, Anna Jagiellonka and Queen Marysieńka highly valued the participation in this beautiful service. The Roratas were close to Sigismund III Vasa, Władysław IV, Jan Kazimierz and Jan III Sobieski. In the diary of Kazimierz Sarnecki, the Polish chronicler of King Jan III Sobieski's court, we read: " 10 December, in Żółkiew, 1693. The king was cheerful, had a slight weakness from the past, with Fr Vota he played with maps which he brought with him and requested to be placed alongside him. HRH the queen used to sit next to the HRH the king and stayed there for the night.”

In former Poland, during Advent, fasting and penitential practices were much more respected than today. In many manor houses, just after midnight on the first Sunday of Advent, the orchestra suddenly stopped playing, dances were over, the servants collected alcohol and fatty foods from the tables, and the salons were ceremoniously decorated with herring, which was often decorated with purple accessories (a colour that indicates the Church's expectation of meeting Jesus and the spirit of penance), hence it was often called the "Catholic". Some to make sure they were not tempted, locked up their musical instruments. 

Oskar Kolberg wrote that in south-eastern Poland “Advent is a sacred time. They do not drink vodka during it, they do not eat meat or fat, and on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays they do not use butter or milk, which replace oil. In Advent they burn candles on the roof for early linen in March”. The observance of fasting was certainly facilitated by an undifferentiated diet and general poverty. In many Polish villages, even when there was no fasting, meat was eaten once a week, usually on Sundays.

In many regions of former Poland, the time of Advent was announced by trumpeters in the so-called "ligawas". Zygmunt Gloger in "Encyclopedia Staropolska" claimed that this "Great wooden trumpet, a rural musical instrument, only used in the open air" may be the oldest musical instrument in Poland. Oskar Kolberg, on the other hand, writes about this instrument in such a way. "Large ligawas, apart from producing shepherds’ signals to cattle, warnings against wild animals all over Podlasie, were also used to herald Advent, as if they were a symbol of the trumpet of the Archangel, which is to announce the imminent arrival of the Saviour to the world. Every Sunday at 4 a.m. on Sundays during the Advent, the rural people enter the Church for Roratas so that barely one person remains in the hut.” The precipitation of Advent also has its justification in the Scriptures. “In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed," writes St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:51.

In Upper Silesia, the custom of a statue or painting of Our Lady wandering from house to house was cultivated in Advent. During such a visitation, family and neighbours came to the house and together they recited the Rosary and the litanies to Our Lady.

The time of festive waiting for the Saviour's arrival was inscribed in the prevailing order of the season, and the activities, which at that time were carried out by people. Advent, wintertime, when there was nothing left to do in the fields and the evenings were long, was conducive to mutual visits and neighbourly contacts. Women would meet in their homes for plucks or evening stories, where, among stories, fairy tales and jokes, they would tear feathers or linen. These were often scary stories about ghouls, meridians and drowned people. The author of these words remembers housewives in the common laundry tearing feathers. As a child I was not yet treated as a man, so I could sit there with my grandmother and neighbours and listen to a story about how the lamp would scare away the wolves when children from the countryside walked through the forest to the church, helped the drunks find their way back home and crushed the hearts of the robbers who were waiting for travellers along forest ducts.

During such a pluck, boys approached windows and scared the girls or opened the door and let in a cat or a dog that scattered feathers all over the room. My grandfather told me about letting pigeons into the kitchen.

Advent customs of Polish peasants, e.g. plucking feathers, were described beautifully by Władysław Stanisław Reymont in his masterpiece "The Peasants". The Polish Nobel Prize winner also immortalized the image of cabbage pickling and pig slaughter on the pages of his work. Both cabbage pickling and even more so pig slaughter were social events, where the host felt obliged to prepare a meal with help from neighbours, often washed down with copious amounts of alcohol, in spite of the prevailing fasting. One could also withdraw from fasting when a matchmaker "came with vodka", i.e. to bring a couple together. Because the time of Advent often meant increased of female matchmakers in the village.

During Advent the housewives and girls took care of the Christmas decor of the house. Various birds made of paper, decorative chains for a Christmas trees, angels made of straw and other "aberrations" were created. Interestingly, today this fashion for ethno-ornaments is coming back and people prefer to pay more for a handmade Christmas tree ornament than to buy a plastic bauble of Chinese production. The National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw has been organizing workshops for making Christmas tree ornaments for children for several years now. During such workshops, museum employees talk about old customs related to Christmas.

When the girls were busy making decorations, the boys were constructing nativity scene costumes. There was plenty to prepare; apart from the costumes of the Holy Family, shepherds, angels and the Three Kings, we had to make the costumes of King Herod, Archangel, Gabriel and the devil or alternatively Turon, an animal resembling a bull with a snapping jaw and horns. There was even a dramatic play called "Turon" in three acts by another outstanding Polish writer Stefan Żeromski. The play describes the Galician Rabbis in 1846.

An Advent wreath hung on the doors of houses is becoming more and more popular in Poland. In churches, the wreath is decorated with four candles symbolizing the period of the four weeks of Advent. Each week another candle is lit.

It is worth noting the new phenomena accompanying Advent, i.e. its philanthropic features and the individual need for deepening spirituality. For some time now, Poles have ben opening in the run-up to Christmas, many of us take part in charity actions, new initiatives are being created to help poor people experience this holiday as joyfully as possible. In the popular campaign organized since 2001 "Noble Parcel" thousands of volunteers choose the family they want to help. This year, a parcel was prepared by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki himself. Caritas of the Catholic Church together with the Evangelical-Augsburg Church, the Evangelical-Reformed Church and the Orthodox Centre of Mercy Eleos run the Christmas Eve Effort to Help Children. Thanks to funds from candles sold for Christmas Eve, many young people will be able to take advantage of free meals, scholarships and summer holidays. This year, for the 26th time, about 2 million candles will be lit during Christmas Eve supper in Polish homes also outside our homeland.

In an increasingly secularizing world, a new phenomenon accompanying Advent is also developing - it is a time for retreats not only in parishes. Many young Poles take part in Internet retreats or choose closed retreats in centres run by different orders. Such Internet retreat stars as the Dominican Father Adam Szustak can record tens of thousands of views of each video on the You Tube channel.

The Bethlehem Light of Peace campaign organised by scouts is also extremely symbolic for our part of Europe. Every year during Advent, the light lit in Bethlehem travels through successive countries via scouts to reach the borders of Poland from the direction of our Slovak neighbours. Polish scouts pass it on to Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.

Jakub Pacan 


Ogrodowska Barbara, Polskie obrzędy i zwyczaje doroczne, Warsaw 2005.

Ogrodowska Barbara, Święta polskie – tradycja i obyczaj, Warsaw 1996.

Ferenc E., Polskie tradycje świąteczne, Poznań 2010,,