Advent calendars are a very old tradition, but they have immense variety

By Patricia Kasten | Catholic News Service | November 24, 2014

Remember those pretty, paper Advent calendars? They had 24 little doors that opened to reveal a holiday picture, Bible verse or — if you were really fortunate — a piece of candy?

Advent calendars are alive and well, but they cover a lot more than paper doors. There are, in the commercial vein, Advent calendars that have little to do with the Advent season — from LEGO Advent calendars to Advent wine and whiskey calendars. However, there are traditional calendars and some twists, such as TV shows that offer a moral message for the season — as well as some cliffhanger moments.

Advent, as a preparation for Christmas, dates back to the first celebrations of Christ’s birth back in the fourth century A.D. People then wanted a preparation time, similar to that of Lent, prior to celebrating the Nativity. The word “advent” comes from the Latin “advenire,” a verb meaning “to come.”

Advent calendars started much later, as a Protestant folk tradition in areas around Germany in the late 18th century. They first consisted of lighted candles or chalk marks placed over doors and used to count down the days before Christmas.

The first examples of what we would today recognize as Advent calendars date to handmade calendars in the 1850s, with the first commercial calendars appearing in the early 1900s made by Munich’s Gerhard Lang. Lang worked at the Reichhold & Lang printing office in Munich. His first Advent calendar was released in 1908 — he credited his mother for her making of cardboard calendars in his childhood — and kept up a steady business until the start of World War II. A rival German company, Sankt Johannis, began making Bible-verse Advent calendars, also until World War II. During the war, paper and cardboard was rationed all over Europe.

These commercial calendars always had 24 doors, one for each day from Dec. 1 until Dec. 24. The final door would either have a picture of Santa Claus or of the Nativity. More modern calendars may include 25 doors and, more recently, some even have 31 doors to carry the celebration through until New Year’s.

After the war, Advent calendars rebounded. Some credit goes to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and a Newsweek photo of him with his grandchildren around a 1946 Advent calendar produced by the German maker Sellmer-Verlag.

Europe now has a large variety of Advent calendars. One of the more unusual is an annual Scandinavian TV show, called Julekalender, dating back to Sweden in 1962. Now an annual tradition in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland, the show airs twice a day, morning and evening, for 15 minutes, during December. The shows are really a 25-part serial, with elaborate costumes and storylines. This year’s Advent show, Piratskattrens himlighet (The Secret of Pirate Treasure) was filmed in Croatia, making it the first Julekalendar filmed outside of Sweden. DVDs of each series are available and are very popular.

In Germany, near the Black Forest, the 24-door paper Advent calendar has been expanded to building-size. The Gengenbach town hall, a 19th-century building, has 24 main windows. Each year, as part of the town’s Advent Market celebration, illustrators of children’s books as well as local and even world-renown artists, such as the late Marc Chagall, have been invited to design a window. One new window is revealed each evening, starting on Nov. 30.

In Britain, “Beyond Church” — a Christian, non-sectarian group — recently began a “beach hut Advent calendar” at the popular seaside town of Brighton in Sussex. Twenty-four different “garages” (seaside changing booths) are decorated by individuals around a festive theme, leading “to the birth of Christ.” Only one hut is open each night, starting Dec. 1. Hot drinks and food are served. Similar living Advent calendars take place in Henley and Oxted, England, each December, with local businesses donating space and local musicians providing music. Money is collected for local charities.

As Rebecca Rumsey, one of the organizers in Oxted, said: “It’s just a gift to the community. It’s about the community coming together and journeying together through Advent.”

Whether an Advent calendar is wall-sized or building-sized, it should serve as a daily reminder that we are preparing for the coming of Christ, the best gift of all.

 

Sources: catholicculture.org; holidays.net; letters-to-santa.co.uk; wikipedia.org; sweden.se; sellmer-verlag.de; Getsurrey.co.uk; gov.uk; northpolewhosale.com; Swedish language blog at transparent.com; ordiskamuseet.se; and svt.se.

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