Curious Questions: Why do we have Advent calendars?

Opening the doors of the advent calendar is an annual treat. But how did the Advent calendar phenomenon start? Martin Fone investigates.

The earliest I can even contemplate the season of enforced goodwill to all mankind, otherwise known as Christmas, is when it is time to start popping open the doors of an Advent calendar. This form of calendar is now well entrenched in our Christmas traditions but what is the story behind it?

Advent is the season in the religious calendar devoted to preparation for the birth of Jesus but as the early Christians were a fissiparous lot, they, naturally, quibbled over whether it should stretch over two or four Sundays. The argument was only settled for good at the turn of the 7th century by Pope Gregor the Great. Ever since, Advent has run over the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, starting with the first Sunday after November 26th and ending at sunset on December 24th, the official start of Christmas Eve. What might be termed the secular Advent, though, is of fixed duration, starting on December 1st and running for 24 days, irrespective of the actual length of religious season. It certainly makes life easier, although this year the two coincide.

The practice of counting down the days to Christmas in a formalised way was a tradition commonly practised in the Teutonic countries from the early 19th century. Early advent calendars in Lutheran Germany were simply chalk marks on a cupboard door or window frame while in Scandinavia candles marked into 24 segments were used, a segment burnt each day. In Austria, they used what were called “heaven ladders”, God descending one rung a day on his way down to Earth. They also used “Christmas clocks” with 24 segments on their face, the hands moved on one step as each day began. The more sophisticated clocks were adorned with the texts of songs or passages from the Bible.

“As a child growing up in the 1950s and from resolutely thrifty Northern stock, I recall the same calendar being trotted out each year and trying to remember which picture was behind each door”

Thomas Mann, in his novel Buddenbrooks, which, while published as late as 1901, describes the lives of a North German family in the middle of the 19th century, provides us with a charming picture of a child’s sense of anticipation as the big day inexorably approaches; “With the help of the tear-off calendar which Ida had made for him, and on whose last page a Christmas tree was drawn, little Johann followed the nearing of that incomparable time with a racing heart”. Homemade calendars were certainly an advance on the rather primitive chalk marks, and you can imagine the sense of excitement when the final leaf was torn off to reveal the tree.

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Gerhard Lang’s mother went one better. In the 1880s she made him an Advent Calendar with twenty-four Wibele stuck on a piece of cardboard. These were small sweets rather like a baked meringue with a distinctive figure of eight shape, considered to be a delicacy in Swabia. He could mark the approach of Christmas by eating one of the sweets each day. Unsurprisingly, the memory stuck with Gerhard.

What characterised the story of advent calendars in the 19th century was that they were homemade, do-it-yourself affairs. It was not until the 20th century that calendars were commercialised but, as ever, there is some dispute as to who was the first. Some suggest Friedrich Tümpler, a publisher and owner of an evangelical Protestant bookshop, who produced printed Christmas Clocks in 1902, selling for 50 Pfenning. Others suggest the Neues Tablatt Stuttgart which in 1904 inserted an advent calendar within its pages as a gift to its loyal readership. But it was Gerhard Lang who firmly established them as a commercial proposition.

Teaming up with a printer, Reichhold, in 1908 his initial effort consisted of twenty-four little pictures which could be stuck on to a piece of cardboard. A few years later he hit on the idea of putting small doors into the cardboard which you could open. By the 1930s commercially produced Advent calendars were a fixture in the run up to Christmas, Lang’s designs getting ever more adventurous. Perhaps his finest was an Advent house, constructed from four pieces of coloured cardboard, complete with windows covered with transparent paper and a front door. The child would open a window each day and the front door on Christmas Eve. A candle inserted inside the house made for a colourful decoration, albeit a bit of a fire hazard.

The advent of the Second World War put a stop to a seemingly frivolous use of valuable resources, but once peace had returned, Gerhard Lang’s baton was taken up with gusto by Richard Sellmer, whose Stuttgart-based company produced the most popular post-war calendars in Germany. It was still a Germanic tradition but what would now be termed a celebrity endorsement helped the calendar find a wider audience. A photograph of President Dwight D Eisenhower sitting with his grandchildren opening an Advent calendar in 1953 established it as a pre-Christmas ritual in the United States and the idea began to gain some traction here.

As a child growing up in the 1950s and from resolutely thrifty Northern stock, I recall the same calendar being trotted out each year and trying to remember which picture was behind each door. It was not until 1958 that the chocolate manufacturers got into the act, but they have pretty much monopolised the Advent calendar market ever since. In many ways they embody the original idea of Gerhard Lang’s mother.

The largest ever Advent calendar was constructed at St Pancras station in December 2007 to celebrate the station’s refurbishment and stood 71-metres high and 23 metres wide.

And the most expensive? It was unveiled in 2019 by Tiffany & Co and retails at £104,000. Standing four-feet tall and decorated in a tasteful duck-egg-blue, each door contains a piece of jewellery from Tiffany & Co. As well it should but it is as far from a set of chalk marks as you could possibly get.

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