The original advent calendar

How Advent Calendars Redefined Advent

Christmas General

On Sunday December 1st 2019 your fingernail can begin prising open the doors on your Advent Calendar. And Advent will last for 24 days. This is quite unusual as Advent doesn’t often last for 24 days, it varies between 22 days and 27 days. For instance, in 2020, the Advent period will last for 26 days – yet your Advent Calendar will resolutely stay at 24 doors. Read on to see how a practical commercial decision led to the redefining of Advent.

Advent (meaning ‘to come’ in Latin) is the period before Christmas when Christians prepare for and celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Christ. It is an ancient tradition that dates from the first century after the birth of Christ.

Based on the modern advent calendar, most people assume that Advent runs from December 1st – December 24th. Advent as a religious period actually begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, or the Sunday nearest the Feast of St. Andrew on November 30th if you prefer. This means the date can vary depending on the year from November 27th (an Advent that is 27 days long) to December 3rd (an Advent of only 22 days).

The Orthodox Church has an Advent period of 40 days, but before you start decking your halls on November 15th, double check which calendar you are using as Orthodox Christmas Day falls on January 6th under the Julian calendar, so that means Advent starts on November 28th.

While we are on the subject of shattering Christmas illusions (don’t panic – it’s not about ‘him‘), Advent is also not the Christmas Period. That begins after sunset on Christmas Eve and runs for the 12 days of Christmas through to Epiphany on January 6th.

To find out why there is a difference between Advent and what we think it is, we need to take a brief look at the history of Advent calendars.

Advent’s days are numbered

The first advent calendars appeared in Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century, when Lutheran Protestants would mark out the days of Advent by lighting candles or by rubbing off chalk signs on a wall.

In Munich, a young boy called Gerald Lang particularly loved the homemade advent calendars that his mother made. She tied a sweet to every day on her advent calendars to give young Gerald a tasty treat on every day before Christmas.

When Gerald grew up, he never lost his love of advent calendars and he was the first person to mass produce advent calendars with his ‘M√ľnchner Weihnachtskalender’ in 1903. The format of these first calendars would be familiar to us, though instead of doors, the calendars came with colourful drawings that needed to be pasted onto each day.

The problem was that with Advent starting on a different day each year, this meant the previous year’s stock would need to be sold or be kept until Advent started on the same day in future years. To avoid this, Gerald had the bright idea to standardise his advent calendars, so that they always began on December 1st. This hard-headed business decision may have flown in the face of long-standing religious traditions but meant any unsold stock could simply be reused the next year.

Did you know?

Doors only appeared on advent calendars in the 1920s.

The countdown that’s taken off

In the UK, the chocolate advent calendar seems to have been a staple part of childhood Christmas but surprisingly, while Cadbury launched its first chocolate advent calendar in 1971, regular annual production only began in Christmas 1993.

In recent years, there has been an explosion in popularity of advent calendars and nowadays it is hard to find something that hasn’t been turned into an advent calendar format from cheese, to tea, to Lego, through to beauty products, gin (Christmas spirits make some sort of sense, I guess) and even calendars with 24 cans of beer.

The most expensive advent calendar we have seen is the ‘Very Old & Rare Whisky Advent Calendar’ made by Masters of Malt costing a very sobering ¬£10,000.

Sources

  • The World Encyclopedia of Christmas by Gerry Bowler
  • A Christmas Cornucopia by Mark Forsyth
  • The ridiculous rise of luxury advent calendars, Guardian