It was a foreign concept to me!
My first introduction to the Advent Calendar was in German Class back in high school. Frau Hildegard Kelly, our teacher, made mention of these calendars, which became all the rage at our school during the December Christmas holiday. Everyone knew about the 12 days of Christmas but certainly not about this little calendar with 24 doors of surprises. Frau Kelly would always order the calendars in a large number as they were sure to sell out.
The calendars have numbers as a countdown to the big day, December 25th. When you open each numbered door, a tiny piece of chocolate is revealed with a picture directly behind it. Each calendar was different, and you often had to hunt for the specific day as they were erratically arranged on the box face. The chocolates are molded into a figure or shape, and you now have to fight off a relative or friend for your “fair share.” You soon learn it is best to buy two of these calendars.
How was it I had never heard of this delightful tradition? The Advent calendar can be traced back to the 19th-century protestant era. While these calendars are mostly attached to Germany, their exact origin is unknown. The concept began with a chalk line countdown or tear-away calendars leading up to Advent (a.k.a arrival of the Christ child)
The Advent season always starts the 4th Sunday before Christmas, which could begin as early as November 27th, or as late as the 3rd day of December. In most cases, the most common calendar starts December 1st. The birth of Christ was significant and developed into a variety of different styles being used to celebrate his arrival. The lighting of candles, hanging pictures for each day, and painting chalk strokes on doors became a common occurrence.
In the early 1900’s we started to see actual printed calendars become heavily circulated. Even then, the cardboard constructions were quite simple as they had pictures or other effects affixed to the surface. Gerhard Lang is credited with bringing the first commercial Advent calendar to market. He remembered his mother presenting him with 24 cookies sewn into the lid of a box for each day leading up to Christmas. She allowed him one cookie a day in anticipation of Christmas day. Soon the calendars became quite elaborate with remarkable illustrations.
Sales of the calendars were slow initially due to the first World War but soon hit their stride. It wasn’t until the 1920’s we started to see the more commonly known calendar with doors to open. At first, the big reveal was bible verses, but soon other motifs began to take hold. Calendars soon revealed stickers and other small gifts. Lang’s first chocolate calendar,” The Christmas Rose,” was done in collaboration with the Stollwerck Company.
World War II saw the calendar production stop to conserve paper/cardboard. After the end of the way, German publisher Richard Sellmer began producing the calendar and is credited with bringing it overseas. His plan to start a charity with President Eisenhower garnered a photograph of the President opening a calendar with his grandchildren. This photograph was printed in many newspapers, and the calendar became an immediate hit. There was no looking back.
So thank you to the German people for introducing us to this fine tradition. Now you can find advent calendars of all types, including calendars with all caramels, different kinds of beers, coffees, teas, and even Tiffany items. Me, I will stick to the simple tradition of pictures and chocolates. Sometimes it is best to keep it simple.