From the 4th century the season was kept as a period of fasting as strict as that of Lent (commencing in some localities on 11 November; this being the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, the fast became known as "St. Martin's Lent", "St. Martin's Fast" or the "forty days of St. Martin"). The feast day was in many countries a time of frolic and heavy eating, since the 40-day fast began the next day. In the Anglican and Lutheran churches this fasting rule was later relaxed, with the Roman Catholic Church doing likewise later, but still keeping Advent as a season of penitence. In addition to fasting, dancing and similar festivities were forbidden in these traditions. The third Sunday in Advent was a Rose Sunday, when the color of the vestments was changed and a relaxation of the fast was permitted. The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches still hold the tradition of fasting for 40 days before the Nativity Feast.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advent
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church [Ed. F.L.Cross, 2nd ed., O.U.P., 1974] states regarding Advent: "The first clear references to the season in the Western Church come from the latter half of the 6th century. In the Gelasian Sacramentary Advent Collects, Epistles, and Gospels are provided for the five Sundays preceding Christmas and for the corresponding Wednesdays and Fridays." (p. 19).
In many countries Advent was long marked by diverse popular observances, some of which still survive. In England, especially in the northern counties, there was a custom (now extinct) for poor women to carry around the "Advent images", two dolls dressed to represent Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary. A halfpenny coin was expected from every one to whom these were exhibited and bad luck was thought to menace the household not visited by the doll-bearers before Christmas Eve at the latest.
In Normandy, farmers employed children under twelve to run through the fields and orchards armed with torches, setting fire to bundles of straw, and thus it is believed driving out such vermin as are likely to damage the crops. In Italy, among other Advent celebrations, is the entry into Rome in the last days of Advent of the Calabrian pifferari, or bagpipe players, who play before the shrines of Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Italian tradition being that the shepherds played these pipes when they came to the manger at Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant Jesus.
Italian bagpipes? Erg.
Okay, more seriously,
However, my question was a bit more general and focused on the nature of Advent. "Is Advent penitential?" What raised this question for me was from my liturgical studies. In his book "Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year According to the Modern Roman Rite," Msgr. Peter Elliot says right off the bat in his section on Advent, "The season with which the liturgical year begins is not penitential." (p.34, #42).http://romansacristan.blogspot.com.au/2 ... ntial.html
This statement suprises me. I was raised with the understanding that Advent was sort of like a less rigid Lent. It wasn't as somber or rigorous as Lent, but nonetheless it had a penitential spirit about it. I mean, first off, there seem to be signs in the liturgy. Just as in Lent, the color of the vestments are violet, there is a week where rose may be worn (3rd Sunday of Advent and 4th Sunday of Lent), "the use of the organ and other musical instruments and the decorating of the altar with flowers should be done in a moderate manner, as is consonant with the character of the season, without anticipating the full joy of Christmas (Ceremonial of Bishops, #236), and there is no Gloria on Sundays of Advent. Even in regards to the celebration of Matrimony, "When a marriage is celebrated during Advent or Lent or other days of penance, the parish priest should advise the couple to take into consideration the special nature of these liturgical seasons." That makes it sound like Advent, Lent, and penitential days are pretty much in the same category.
In "The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy" Fr. Adrian Fortesque says this about Advent when looking the how the Gloria developed in the Mass:
"Advent was not considered a penitential season till about the XIIIth century. In the XIIth century it was still kept with white vestments and the Gloria. The omission of the Gloira in Lent and Advent is natural enough from its joyful character." Interesting. He says that the season developed into a more penitential season.
(I strongly recommend Fortesque, especially, but not only, for those seeking a deeper understanding of the Extraordinary Form of the Rite.)
Does any of that help?