The first of December and the countdown to Christmas begins: the start of Advent. I wonder how many children and adults around the world have marked the start of this period by opening the first door on their Advent Calendars. The world advent comes from a Latin phrase meaning “coming” or “coming toward”, but I wonder how many of you know that, like many of our Christmas traditions, especially here in the UK, are of German origin.
My siblings and I grew up having Advent calendars from as long as I can remember, at least for me this started way back in the 1950s. My German grandmother would during late November send over to us a parcel containing calendars, our Christmas presents and foodstuffs we accepted as normal fayre from Germany, including gingerbread hearts, Stollen, Lebkucken and marzipan fruits, things that were unobtainable let alone heard of back then in England. Oh, how I can still smell the aromas in the house the day the parcel was opened.
Advent calendars then were aimed at children. They were simple affairs: a colourful Christmas scene scattered with glitter and having 24 little doors that you prised open on the said day. Behind each door would be a small nativity scene. Each day as you opened a new door, the anticipation of Christmas Day grew. We loved them.
But why little doors? That again goes back to a German tradition whereby Lutherans would light a new candle or make a mark on walls or doors with a line of chalk each day. This led to the practice of daily hanging up a devotional image. This, in turn, led to the creation of the first handmade wood advent calendar during the 1850s.
There are two versions of how these calendars came about. One, that a bookshop owner in Hamburg came up with the idea. The other that as a child, a boy called Gerhard Lang’s mother stuck 24 tiny sweets to a square of cardboard for him to eat over the Advent period. As an adult, Lang opened a printing office with his partner. The idea of the sweets stayed with Lang and together they produced what is thought to be the first-ever printed cardboard Advent calendar in 1908. The innovation of doors was added to the printed versions during the 1920s.
Production stopped during WW2 due to a cardboard shortage but soon gathered pace. Now Advent calendars are around the world and have become as much part of Christmas as trees and Christmas cards.
Our childhood calendars from Germany never contained sweets or chocolate but we did not feel at all deprived. Quite the opposite. We felt special and we felt loved because our English friends did not have these calendars. We felt sad for them.
Boy, have those calendars come along way since. Now aimed at everyone, they can contain anything from chocolate and sweets behind each door, to small bottles of perfume or aftershave, better still even miniature bottles of whisky or gin (hey, Dave, where’s mine?). Some have jewellery, make-up, little toys, Lego characters from Harry Potter or Star Wars. I’ve seen them with nuts, beer, beauty products, cheese, tea, coffee; almost becoming a Christmas gift in themselves. The Guinness Book of Records lists the largest Advent calendar as that at the St. Pancras train station in London in 2007. It measured 232 feet and 11 inches tall, and 75 feet and 5 inches wide, celebrated the reopening of the station following a renovation, though I expect that record has since been broken. And unbelievably, since 2008, a photo blog has featured an Advent calendar of daily images from the Hubble Space Telescope. It seems there is nothing that cannot be put inside an Advent calendar nowadays. I’m not sure if that is a good or bad thing.
Like a lot to do with Christmas, it seems everything is overdone, commercialized, starts early – even November has been renamed Novembermas! Christmas trees and decorations go up earlier and earlier. I can understand this year after the cancelled Christmas of 2020 and I have no argument or qualms with anyone doing what they want, celebrating the season how they want to do so. Brilliant, I say.
Do you have an Advent calendar? And what is your favourite type? I’d love hear.