Easter is the Church’s principal liturgical feast, and Easter celebrations set the pattern for every other feast during the liturgical year. Although we cannot determine exactly when the Church began to celebrate Advent, the Church’s celebration of the Advent season goes back at least 14 centuries. We have Advent sermons from Gregory the Great (who died in 604) and evidence shows the Church in Spain celebrated the Advent season by the middle of the seventh century.
Fifty years earlier, a Church synod (a meeting of Church leaders to discuss questions of Church discipline, faith or morals) determined that during the days from Nov. 11 to Dec. 25 should be observed like the days of Lent. When November 11 came to be observed as the feast of St. Martin of Tours, this preparatory time became known as “St. Martin’s Lent.”
As this name suggests, Advent was initially far more penitential than it is today. After the Second Vatican Council, emphasis shifted from penance to spiritual preparation for Jesus’ birth. Thus although we adopt violet vestments and forego the Gloria at Mass, our liturgical readings call us to anticipate Jesus’ birth, sharing the joy of John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary.