With Christmas soon approaching, you’ve probably put some thought into Advent. Advent comes with a whole host of traditions; putting up decorations, wreaths, trees and, of course, Advent calendars. Most people are familiar with this tradition, but what do you actually know about these treat-filled timekeepers?
Like most Christmas traditions that have become mainstays of a more commercialised Christmas, Advent calendars were first used by Christians – and to be specific, German Lutherans in the 19th and 20th centuries – and were made from wood. Early methods to count down to the birth of Christ included lines of chalk, Advent candles, and even Advent clocks.
The first printed Advent calendar is believed to be made by Gerhard Lang in the early 1900s, but as a German-born man, he was forced to shut down his company in 1930 with the outbreak of World War II when cardboard became rationed. After the war, Richard Sellmer, brought back the practice and began churning them out. By the 1950s his calendars were being exported to the US and had become a commercial staple of the Christmas season. Traditionally, they were decorated with either scenes of the general winter season or The Nativity and could contain a daily prayer, poem, or part of a story behind each day’s window.
They didn’t become a cornerstone of Christmas until 1993 which is surprisingly recent for something that seems so ingrained in our lives
Chocolate Advent calendars have been around since 1958, but it wasn’t until 1971 when Cadbury made their own version that it came to the UK. They were made sporadically from 1972 to 1986, but they didn’t become a cornerstone of Christmas until 1993 which is surprisingly recent for something that seems so ingrained in our lives. Sellmer’s company is still in operation today and makes over 140 variations of their product. You can even still buy the original design which is called “The Little Town”, although before you rush out and buy one, I’d think about if chocolate is really all you want from your calendars. Now, Advent calendars can be filled with anything from makeup, to fun trinkets, gourmet treats, cheese, gin and sex toys – you can even get calendars for dogs!
Most Advent calendars have 24-25 windows or pockets meant to count from December 1st to Christmas day so as to make them long-lasting, up to date and consistent year after year. Advent starts four Sundays before Christmas, and not on December 1st like so many of us would assume. This means Advent can be anywhere between 22 and 27 days long, and I’m sure we’d all be a bit upset if we got two fewer prizes one year. This year Advent actually starts on November 27th, but I doubt anyone is going to get an Advent calendar that starts from then, which goes to show the influence these calendars have had over our shared cultural perceptions for those who don’t celebrate Advent in a religious context in the UK.
However, it’s not just the UK, the US, and Germany that counts down the days till Christmas – Nordic countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands have their own Christmas calendar tradition, although relatively recent. In 1957, Sweden introduced a radio series called Barnens adventskalender which aired every day of December until Christmas Eve. It then expanded to television and to other Nordic countries and eventually came full circle in the 21st century and extended to Germany!
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