A Brief History of Advent Calendars

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You don't need an Advent calendar to know that Christmas is coming, but opening a little numbered door to reveal a prize is an idea that everyone – religious or not – can get behind. Here’s a brief history of Advent calendars and six non-traditional designs of a popular tradition.

What is Advent? Advent is the four-week period beginning on the Sunday nearest the feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle (November 30) through the following three Sundays. Historians estimate that Advent, which derives from the Latin word for coming, has been celebrated since the fourth century. The period originally began as a time for converts to Christianity to prepare for baptism, but is now more commonly associated with the anticipation of the anniversary of Christ’s birth on December 25.

Advent Calendar Origins Advent calendars typically don’t follow the period of Advent described above. Instead, they begin on December 1 and mark the 24 days before Christmas. Today, most Advent calendars include paper doors that open to reveal an image, Bible verse, or piece of chocolate. The tradition dates to the mid-19th century, when German Protestants made chalk marks on doors or lit candles to count the days leading up to Christmas.

The First Printed Advent Calendars Gerhard Lang is widely considered the producer of the first printed Advent calendar in the early 1900s.

Around the same time, a German newspaper included an Advent calendar insert as a gift to its readers. Lang’s calendar was inspired by one that his mother had made for him and featured 24 colored pictures that attached to a piece of cardboard. Lang modified his calendars to include the little doors that are a staple of most Advent calendars today and they became a commercial success in Germany. Production stopped due to a cardboard shortage during World War II, but resumed soon after, with Richard Sellmer emerging as the leading producer of commercial Advent calendars. One of Sellmer’s calendars, “Little Town,” is pictured above.

I Like Ike and Ike Likes Advent Calendars Dwight D. Eisenhower is often credited for the proliferation of the Advent calendar tradition in the United States. During his presidency, Eisenhower was photographed opening an Advent calendar with his grandchildren and the photo ran in several national newspapers.

Here’s a look at six non-traditional Advent calendars that we think would make Gerhard Lang proud.

The $50,000 Advent Calendar 

One of the most expensive Advent calendars to ever hit the shelves was a four-foot, Christmas-tree shaped structure carved from burr elm and walnut wood available through Harrods in 2007. Each of the $50,000 calendar’s 24 compartments housed a piece of organic chocolate from Green & Black, with proceeds going to support cocoa farmers in Belize.

The World’s Largest Advent Calendar 

A building in Gloucester, England’s King’s Square was transformed into the world’s largest Advent calendar last December. The interactive calendar, which turned one of the city’s major eyesores into a giant, ribbon-tied Christmas present, was designed to promote local businesses during the busiest shopping season of the year. Beginning December 1, a new window was opened every day, revealing the logo of a different city business that offered specials until Christmas.

The Obama Advent Calendar 

Here’s a piece of Obamania memorabilia you may have missed: the Obama Advent calendar. The $18 keepsake includes caricatures of John Edwards (“The Red-faced Reindeer”), Jesse Jackson (“The Nutcracker”), Bill Ayers (“Frosty the Weatherman”), and more. Naturally, Michelle and Barack Obama are behind the door on the 25th.

The Advent Calendar for Web Geeks The self-proclaimed Advent calendar for web geeks has provided a daily dose of web design and development tips during the Advent season since 2005. Last year’s collection included an article about using cleaner code with CSS3 selectors and another titled “HTML5: Tool of Satan, or Yule of Santa?”

The LEGO Advent Calendar 

For several years, LEGO has produced an Advent calendar set, featuring figures or constructible accessories behind every numbered door. LEGO produced two versions of its Advent calendar last year, a traditional LEGO City and a Pirates edition. Why not? The LEGO City set includes a naked, showering Santa. Really.

Hubble Space Telescope 

For the past two years, the Big Picture photo blog has featured an Advent calendar of daily images from the Hubble Space Telescope. The spectacular photos are chosen by blog editor Alan Taylor.

Amazon Will Deliver a 7-Foot Christmas Tree to Your Door This Holiday Season

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We're still technically in the dregs of summer, but Amazon is already thinking about Christmas. The online retail giant has just announced it will be giving customers the chance to skip the annual trip to the Christmas tree farm this holiday season and order live trees online instead, the Associated Press reports.

Amazon has previously sold live Christmas trees that topped out around three feet, with larger trees available on the site through third-party vendors. This year the company is establishing itself as a major player in the real Christmas tree market. Beginning in November, Amazon shoppers will have their choice of buying Balsam firs, Black Hills spruces, or Norfolk Island pines directly from the company. The tallest offering, a seven-foot Fraser fir, will sell for $115.

All of Amazon's trees will be wrapped up and delivered within 10 days of being chopped down, which should mean they'll still be alive upon arrival. As is the case with other Amazon products, the trees will be shipped in cardboard boxes. Some will even be eligible for free, two-day shipping for Amazon Prime members—just in case you're the kind of person who decorates their home for the holidays at the very last minute. And if you're someone who likes to get all of that holiday shopping out of the way early, Amazon will also offer pre-orders.

As for the possibility that independent Christmas tree farms will be the next industry brought down by online retail, tree farmers aren't worried. The National Christmas Tree Association told the AP that it estimates only about one to two percent of all live trees purchased for the holidays last year were ordered online.

[h/t AP]

11 Things You Should Know About Rosh Hashanah

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The first Rosh Hashanah supposedly occurred in the Garden of Eden. But what does this important Jewish holiday involve today?

1. IT LITERALLY TRANSLATES AS "HEAD OF THE YEAR."


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Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, can fall any time between the fifth of September and the fifth of October on the Gregorian Calendar. On the Jewish calendar, it is the first day of the month of Tishrei and marks the start of the High Holy Days. These days are also known as the days of awe, ushering in the final phase of atonement. The holiday celebrates the anniversary of the creation of the world.

2. FOR THE MONTH BEFORE, JEWS ASK FOR FORGIVENESS FROM FRIENDS AND FAMILY.

In order to have a clean slate going into the New Year, Jews ask for forgiveness from those close to them. The idea here is that God cannot forgive transgressions against people until those wronged have forgiven.

3. TRADITIONALLY, ROSH HASHANAH HAPPENS OVER TWO DAYS.

These days are combined into the yoma arichta, or "long day." At sunset on the first evening, candles are lit by the lady of the house. Then blessings are recited: a traditional holiday blessing over the candles, followed by the shehecheyanu, a thanksgiving prayer for special occasions. Both evenings also feature a festive meal.

4. UNLIKE DECEMBER 31, THE JEWISH NEW YEAR IS A TIME OF SERIOUS REFLECTION AND REPENTANCE.


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Even Jews who go to synagogue at no other time of year will often go on the high holidays, which include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Religious poems called piyyutim are recited and a special high holy day prayer book called the machzor is used. The service is often longer than Sabbath services, and centers around the theme of God’s sovereignty, remembrance, and blasts of the shofar (see below).

5. DESPITE NOT BEING A HUGE PARTY, JEWS ARE EXPECTED TO ENJOY THE YOM TOV, OR HOLIDAY.

People often get fresh haircuts and new clothes in order to celebrate. The tradition is to wear white clothing as a sign of purity and renewal. Some avoid wearing red, since it's the color of blood.

6. ACCORDING TO THE TALMUD, ON ROSH HASHANAH, GOD INSCRIBES EVERYONE'S NAMES INTO ONE OF THREE BOOKS.

The metaphorical understanding is that good people go into the Book of Life, and evil ones into the Book of Death; those who are in the middle are put in an intermediate one and have judgment put off until Yom Kippur. Since virtually no one is all good or all evil, you're supposed to assume you fall somewhere in the middle, and in order to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year, it is important to do everything possible to atone before Yom Kippur.

7. THE SOUNDING OF THE SHOFAR IS THE MOST ICONIC IMAGE OF THIS HOLIDAY.


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The shofar is a ram’s horn that is curved and bent. It is hollowed out and blown during religious ceremonies to make three different sounds. Hearing it is meant to call you to repent.

8. WHILE SOME JEWISH HOLIDAYS INVOLVE FASTING, ROSH HASHANAH INVOLVES A FEAST.

It is traditional to eat apples dipped in honey to represent having a sweet year ahead. A round challah bread symbolizes the cycle of the year (another interpretation is that it represents a crown and thus God’s sovereignty). Sometimes a fish, or just its head, is included, possibly to represent that as fish cannot survive without water, Jews cannot survive without the Torah. Pomegranates contain many seeds, which have long been associated with the commandments that Jews follow, so by eating them they remind themselves to be good in the coming year. Other common foods include dates, leeks, gourds, and black-eyed peas, all of which are mentioned in the Talmud as foods to eat on New Year’s.

9. SOME BRANCHES OF JUDAISM PARTICIPATE IN THE RITUAL OF TASHLIKH, OR "CASTING OFF."

The ritual involves standing near water, like a river, and reciting prayers. Then participants symbolically cast away their sins by throwing bread crumbs or stones into the water. This is supposedly derived from the Biblical passage “You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19), although most Jewish sources trace it back to 15th century Germany. In New York City, large groups gather on the Brooklyn Bridge, while in Israel—where there is much less open water—people might use something as small as a fish pond.

10. THERE ARE VARIOUS TRADITIONAL GREETINGS FOR ROSH HASHANAH.


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L'Shana Tova Tea-ka-tayvu is Hebrew for “May you be inscribed for a good year,” referring to that person’s name being put in the Book of Life. This is often shortened to Shana Tova, which just means “Good Year.” This isn’t to be confused with wishing each other a “Happy New Year.” Happy implies a level of superficiality, while the Jewish wish for a good year hopes the person will achieve their purpose.

11. THE HAVDALAH PRAYER IS PERFORMED AS NIGHT FALLS ON THE SECOND AND LAST DAY.

It involves saying blessings over a full cup of kosher wine or grape juice, although other drinks can be used in a pinch. After this, Rosh Hashanah is over.

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