By Joyce Coronel, The Catholic Sun

The days leading up to Christmas can often be filled with shopping, decorating and other worldly pursuits, but long-held Advent traditions help the faithful focus on the reason for the season: the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ.

In the Diocese of Phoenix and around the globe, colorful Advent traditions reflecting various cultures will soon be underway. This year, Christmas is on Sunday, so there are four full weeks of Advent to live the faith even more deeply.

Honor Your Mother

The streets of downtown Phoenix spring to life the first Saturday of December each year when thousands of faithful participate in Honor Your Mother, an outdoor Mass plus a colorful procession with over 100 entrants held in front of the Diocesan Pastoral Center.

From young women dressed as Our Lady of Guadalupe to swirling matachine dancers to banner-toting parishioners from all over the Phoenix diocese, the procession, featuring elaborately decorated floats, proceeds through city streets to ultimately pass before a stage set up in front of the Diocesan Pastoral Center.

Standing on the stage on Monroe Street will be Bishop John P. Dolan and Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares of the Diocese of Phoenix.

Unlike previous years, the procession will take place after the Mass. Armando Ruiz, one of the principal organizers, said the change reflects the priorities of the U.S. Bishops Conference to focus on the Eucharist.

“What we found out is there’s a lot of emphasis on the procession and less on the Mass, so we’re going to actually turn it around and do the Mass first,” Ruiz said.

Now in its 18th year, the annual Advent tradition brings people together in celebration.

“I think it continues the tradition of the Virgin of Guadalupe bringing different cultures and people together who speak different languages, under one faith umbrella and always directing us to Jesus,” Ruiz said.

That unity is something needed during our time, Ruiz said.

“Right now in the U.S., there’s an emphasis on division and what separates us as opposed to what unites us. And we need more events that remind us that we’re all children of God.”

The great love for Our Lady of Guadalupe that shines at Honor Your Mother each year is packed with Advent spirit. With her hands folded, head bowed and facing a particular direction, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Ruiz said, tells the faithful to pray, reflect, and gaze upon the “Savior who comes into the world, saves us and forgives us our sins. And God loves us so much that He would do that.”

Simbang Gabi

Ofelia Spiridon grew up in the Philippines and has fond memories of Simbang Gabi, a nine-day novena of Masses traditionally celebrated at 4 a.m. during Advent in the Philippines, and, thanks to the many Filipinos in the U.S., increasingly in the Diocese of Phoenix.

“The best memories I have are waking up so early, even when I was so young,” Spiridon said. “My grandmother used to drag me out of bed so we could go to the early-dawn Mass. And after the Mass, there were so many sweets outside the church. I loved it.”

The daughter of a farmer and a homemaker, Spiridon said it was a different world in the Southeast Asia nation.

“You know, growing up, life was very simple. It was not a materialistic world. We never cared about gifts — we didn’t get gifts.” The church rang its bells and cranked up Christmas music to call villagers to the Misa de Gallo, or Mass of the Rooster, as its known in the Philippines. The early morning Mass allowed farmers to worship before heading off to the fields for the day.

Spiridon came to the U.S. in 1990 and is part of the Filipino community at Our Lady of the Valley Parish which celebrates the Simbang Gabi Masses each year, beginning on Dec. 15. To accommodate the urban lifestyle, Masses are held at 7 p.m.

Fr. Jess Ty, pastor of Our Lady of Joy, was also born in the Philippines and is one of the priests who celebrates the Simbang Gabi Masses at Our Lady of the Valley.

“The reason we do this Mass is to prepare for Christmas and then to honor the nine months of Jesus in the womb of Mary,” Fr. Ty said. Rather than violet, the priest wears a white chasuble and stole for the Virgin Mary.

“There’s a special indult, so we sing the Gloria,” Fr. Ty said. The liturgy is celebrated in Tagalog, except when Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares presides, something that usually happens at least once during Simbang Gabi.

Amelia Sury, director of faith formation at Our Lady of the Valley, said anywhere from 100-200 people attend the Simbang Gabi Masses at the parish. The novena begins Dec. 15 and runs through Dec. 23.

Though she can’t always attend all nine Masses due to other obligations, many people shoot for the full complement. “Basically, because we have our intention or petition, we’re doing the novena and hoping that by Christmas that will be answered,” Sury said.

“It brings back good memories,” Spiridon said. “You can feel the camaraderie among the Filipinos. You see them come, even when you are so tired from work, you have to go and hear the Mass.”

Las Posadas

The Hispanic culture offers its own version of an Advent novena with a tradition called Las Posadas. Basically, it’s a procession that goes from door to door, as St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary did, to seek shelter so that the Son of God could be born.

Carolina Uribe, coordinator of Hispanic ministries at St. Mary Catholic Church in Chandler, has been participating in the parish’s Las Posadas tradition since 1990. About 100 people gather each evening Dec. 16 through Dec. 24 to take part in the procession through the surrounding neighborhood.

“We pray the rosary and sing,” Uribe said. They also enlist three small children dressed as St. Joseph, the Virgin Mary, and an angel. Other children and adults carry small statues of Joseph and a pregnant Mary seated on a donkey. The group carries lights and process praying and singing traditional Las Posadas hymns.

Preselected families in the neighborhood will refuse them shelter for the night, but eventually, they come to the home of a parishioner who admits the group for a little catechesis and a large serving of fun and fellowship.

“I don’t ask them for anything, but the ladies, by tradition, and because of our culture, sometimes they give us tamales,” Uribe said. There are other delicacies often offered as well, with some reflecting other Latin American traditions, such as the pupusas, or thick, stuffed tortillas, from a Salvadoran family. From pinatas to pan dulce and other treats, the night ends on festive note.

On the 24th, the group finishes the procession at the doors of the church where they are ultimately received to enter for the 5:30 p.m. Mass and lay the statue of the Baby Jesus in the creche scene near the altar.

“The most beautiful thing about Las Posadas for me is teaching the kids and the young families what it is that we really celebrate at Christmas,” Uribe said. That’s because an integral part of the celebration at St. Mary’s is breaking open the readings of the day and discussing them.

“We ask the kids questions. ‘What was it that caught your attention in the reading? What is this all about? What are we celebrating?’ It’s to make them think,” Uribe said.

The Jesse Tree

Dating back to medieval times, the Jesse Tree shows the Scriptural genealogy of Jesus, and brings to life the prophecy of Isaiah as recorded in Isaiah 11:1, “A shoot will spring forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch will grow from his roots.”

From illuminated manuscripts to magnificent stained-glass windows in historic churches, paintings and stone carvings, the depiction of the Jesse Tree is a staple of sacred art. In modern times, it’s portrayed by ornaments decorating a tree. Each of the 25 ornaments represent different aspects and personages of salvation history.

At St. Timothy Catholic School in Mesa, students gather on the Fridays during Advent to learn about and decorate the Jesse Tree. Maureen Vick, principal, said student council members explain the tradition to fellow students.

“Each Friday, we’ll start adding ornaments and we’ll talk about what these ornaments mean,” Vick said. “I think the Jesse Tree helps them to see Christ in Christmas. They can see the lineage of Jesus and the history, just bringing them closer to what Christmas truly means with the birth of Jesus.”

Try this at home

Not all Advent traditions consist in leaving the house. Some of the most beloved traditions can   be practiced in the family home with the domestic church. To make it easy and fun, the Diocese of Phoenix’s Office of Worship offers a free, downloadable e-book, An Advent and Christmas Resource for Families, available at

From videos on how to make an Advent wreath or Nativity scene to the Gospel readings for the four Sundays of Advent, prayers, hymns, the O Antiphons and the Christmas Proclamation (always a tear-jerker) the free resource is user-friendly and helps families step up their Advent observances. Printable Jesse Tree ornaments — three separate types — are available, too.

Alyssa Yingling, coordinator of worship for the Diocese of Phoenix, said the book helps families observe Advent in meaningful ways.

“I think one of the most beautiful parts about the Advent and Christmas time is really how tangible things can be,” Yingling said. Throughout the liturgical year, the Resurrection, Pentecost, the Trinity — these are frequently abstract spiritual concepts.

“But for Advent and Christmas, it’s about the manifestation of Christ,” Yingling said. “To really help people understand that, we’ve developed all these traditions which are tangible.”

From the Advent wreath with its candles symbolizing Christ as the light of the world, to Nativity sets, “Christ, the Word made Flesh, is actually present in your house in a symbolic way,” Yingling said.