The uncovered history of the Advent calendar

While Christmas is approaching at a very fast speed – shops are already decorated, carols accompany us on for our grocery shopping, and the streets are soon to be embellished with lights – there are many of us who decide to countdown the days with an Advent calendar.

Advent is a period of time to prepare spiritually for the arrival of Christmas, starting four Sundays before. It marks the start of the Western Christianity liturgical year, with the festivity of Saint Andrew on November 30. This tradition dates back to the IV century, and it generally consists of reading passages from the Bible, though there are many variants of it around the world.

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The origins of the Advent calendar

Even though Advent had been in the Christian tradition for ages, it was not up until the 19th century when the idea of the calendar to count the remaining days began. It all started in Germany, but it was not done the way we know it today, it was all much more simple: they awaited its arrival by making chalk marks on walls or doors, or by lighting a new candle each day.

This custom later developed to more elaborate ones, with the first wooden calendar being created in the mid-1800s. That one was flat, with Christian images painted on it, and showing the days in separate squares. Half a century after, there is a record of the first printed Advent calendars.

By the hand of Gerhard Lang, whose mother had made him an Advent calendar with cardboard and sweets tied to it during his childhood, the calendars we know of today were first conceived: he added small doors, which hid the little sweet surprises behind them.

The first half of the 20th century was marked by both World Wars, so that prevented Lang from making his calendars. Paper was a rationed good, and it was nearly impossible for them to print them. That could have meant the end of the printed Advent calendar, but after the war was over, he managed to re-open his company and the calendar continued its journey. Lang’s company still exists to this day, and makes Advent calendars, which you can buy here.

The Advent calendar today

A lot has happened since those first chalk marks on the wall. The creation of the first Advent calendar with doors opened up a world of possibilities, and nowadays it is almost impossible not to find anything you can think of behind those little doors.

That ancient Christian tradition, just like many others, has lost its primary meaning – the anticipation of Christ’s birth – to give way to a less religious custom. Now, many people buy Advent calendars as a countdown for Christmas, not thinking so much about its real meaning, but for the door-opening, chocolate-eating, and as a tradition to live together with their families.

The most notorious type of Advent calendar –  the one most of us picture when thinking about these calendars – is the traditional one, filled with chocolate nibbles, that comes in many forms. From Christmasy imagery of snowed villages, to Sponge Bob or My Little Pony, there is a chocolate Advent calendar for everyone, and many of them you can find in your local supermarket.

However, the amount of possibilities today is overwhelming, and the regular chocolate calendars may seem like a very old-fashioned choice. The Advent calendar has entered the capitalised world, and its varieties have expanded immensely: from cheese, to tea, to make-up… to even liquor! Anything you can think of has a place in the Advent calendar world.

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Other options are available, of course. You can find your own calendar to fill with whatever you fancy. The perk of these calendars is that you can reuse them every year, so you only have to worry about finding something new to fill them with.

If you want to get a little creative, and you have a good hand with crafts, you can even make your own! There are plenty of ideas on the Internet for you to follow, or you can create it using your own imagination. This option is great if you want to keep children busy, and spend some time creating something together. Some ideas are envelopes with phrases inside, Christmas bulbs, or these paper houses you can light from the inside.

Though its origins are purely related to Christianity, people outside of it have taken this tradition as their own, untying it from its roots and leading it to become a custom for everyone. That disengagement from religion, and the volume of varieties and prices, make these calendars a very appealing entertainment for counting the days to the Holidays. So it looks like, religious or not, this trend has come to stay.

Julia Villanueva
Julia Villanueva

Spaniard living in Ireland, passionate about literature, learning languages, and knowing different cultures.

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