Advent calendars

Open up! Around 13% of advent calendars sold in the UK contain cosmetics.

December has arrived, which means that it is time to start opening the doors on this year’s Advent calendar. But what is Advent – and where did the tradition of calendars come from?

  • What is Advent?

    It is the four-week period leading up to Christmas. In the Christian faith, it represents a period of preparation – in fact, the word “Advent” comes from the Latin word for “coming”. The season has been celebrated since the 4th Century. Originally, it was a time for converts to prepare for baptism. Now, it is more commonly thought of as the season leading up to Christmas on 25 December.

    While Advent calendars generally begin on 1 December, the Christian period begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve. This year, Advent Sunday was on 29 November.

  • Where did the calendars come from?

    Originally, from Germany. The tradition of counting down to Christmas started when 19th-century German Protestants would make marks with chalk on their doors or light candles to mark the days passing.

    A man called Gerhard Lang is considered to be the first person to popularise the festive countdowns. As a child, his mother made him a calendar of card with coloured pictures. When he grew up, Lang began producing modified versions. In 1904, the Stuttgarter Zeitung newspaper published Lang’s Christmas calendar. It had 24 pictures that children could cut out each day and glue onto the calendar.

  • And they’ve been around ever since?

    Not quite. Lang’s business thrived. Soon, he was printing Advent calendars with a publisher. From 1908 onwards, they were selling every year in increasingly high numbers and in a variety of types – including a version with Braille.

    But with the outbreak of war, things changed. Paper was rationed and Advent calendars were seen as “unimportant to the war effort”. Lang’s business closed. Then, in 1941, the Nazi party banned Church-run media and ran its own calendar. Other religious elements were replaced with propaganda celebrating Germanic heritage. The Advent wreath became the “Solstice wreath”. And Advent itself lost its Latin name and became “Vorweihnachten” – German for “before Christmas”.

  • So, how did they become popular again?

    When rations were dropped and Nazi laws lifted in 1945, Advent calendars made a return. But this time, they became globally successful. They were already popular across Austria and Switzerland. Now, they were being printed in the UK and the US as well. Shops marketed the calendars with the suggestion that they helped children count down the days – presumably to curb impatience for the holiday.

    In 1953, US President Eisenhower released a photograph of his grandchildren with an Advent calendar. The result was that it became firmly planted in US tradition and has remained popular ever since.

  • What about chocolate?

    That first turned up in 1958. While Advent calendars were originally used by religious families, they quickly became more commercial. Adding sweets and gifts became a way for companies to sell more – and provided useful marketing for the Christmas season. The first Cadbury’s calendar launched in 1971 and was a permanent annual event by 1992.

    Today, it’s not just about chocolate. For those who dislike sweets, there are calendars available filled with cheese, pork scratchings – and even pringles. And they are no longer aimed simply at children: luxury beauty products packaged into Advent calendars sell for hundreds of pounds, and you can even buy 24 whisky miniatures to count down the days of December.

  • What other Advent traditions are there?

    The Advent calendar started as a local European tradition and quickly spread across the world – but it is not the only way to pass the days before Christmas.

    In China, Christians light up their homes with colourful paper lanterns, while in Europe, Advent markets are usually a sign that the season has arrived. Advent in Mexico brings the tradition called Las Posadas – Spanish for “The Inns”. The celebration starts halfway through Advent on 16 December and continues until Christmas Eve. It marks the story of Mary and Joseph looking for somewhere to stay.

You Decide

  1. Is the build up to Christmas better than the day itself?

Activities

  1. Have a competition to see who can invent the best Advent calendar. Come up with a calendar design and contents and pitch it to the rest of your class. Then, vote to see who wins.

Word Watch

Converts
People who have chosen to convert to a religion.
Baptism
In the Christian religion, baptism is a rite of admission with the use of water. Babies are often baptised, but adults who convert also have a baptism.
Advent Sunday
The first day of Advent, according to Christians.
Protestants
Protestants separated from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th Century after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a local church in Wittenberg, Germany.
Braille
A system of touch reading and writing for blind people in which raised dots represent the letters of the alphabet. It was invented by Louis Braille in 1824.
Propaganda
Communication – often via press and media – that is primarily used to influence an audience and further an agenda. Propaganda uses altered or selected facts and loaded language. The NSDAP (Nazi) party are particularly known for their use of propaganda before and during World War Two.
Advent wreath
A wreath of evergreen foliage in which four candles are set, one to be lit on each Sunday of Advent. Advent wreaths are usually found in churches, but some Christian families also have one at home during the season.
Miniatures
Small bottles of spirit typically intended to be a single serving.
Mary and Joseph
The Christian Bible tells the story that Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem and needed somewhere to stay. They visited several inns – a kind of guest house – but there was no room. Eventually, an innkeeper let them stay in his stable. So, Mary gave birth to Jesus surrounded by farm animals.

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