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.

December 1, 2010 - 10:41am
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