Perspecs Explains: The history of the Advent calendar
By Daniel J. McLaughlin
At Christmastime, along with turkey and pigs in blankets, chocolate becomes a staple diet for the sweet-toothed, both young and old. The idea is reinforced by the Advent calendar, a 24-door confectionery surprise. Resisting the urge to open them all at once, children - and yes, some adults - enjoy a side of chocolate with their breakfast each morning.
Advent calendars are derived from the Christian season of Advent, a period of four Sundays or weeks before Christmas. Advent gets its name from the Latin phrase 'coming toward' - Christians are preparing for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. It begins on the Sunday closest to the feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle, held on November 30. This year, Advent began on December 2.
So how did we get from veneration for the baby Jesus to choccies in the morning?
Like many Christmas traditions, we inherit the Advent calendars from the Germans. According to 'Doing History in Public', a collective of historians, German Protestants "began to mark the days of Advent either by burning a candle for the day or, more simply, marking walls or doors with a line of chalk each day".
There are two contenders for the very first Advent calendar. It is believed that it was produced by a Protestant bookshop owner in Hamburg in 1902. Two years later, the German newspaper Stuttgarter Neuen Tagblatt included a "Christmas calendar" in one of its editions.
The other contender was a hand-made calendar made in Germany in the late 19th century for a child named Gerhard Lang. His mother made a calendar that featured 24 coloured pictures attached to a piece of cardboard - or, as other accounts note, it featured 24 “Wibbele” (little candies). Lang would later use this idea to become the producer of the first printed Advent calendar in the 1900s. He added the little doors that are a staple of most Advent calendars today and they became a commercial success in Germany, Mental Floss explains.
Others began to copy the concept. The first religious Advent calendar was refined by the Sankt Johannis Printing Company in 1922. Instead of pictures, they placed Biblical verses behind the 24 doors.
Advent calendars took a brief hiatus due to the outbreak of war when paper and cardboard was limited due to rationing. Following World War II, Advent calendars were mass-produced, thanks to a printer named Richard Sellmer. He focused his attention on the US market, and in 1953, he acquired the US patent and the calendar became a success. Sellmer even earned the title of "the General Secretary of Father Christmas". His company still produces more than a million calendars a year in 25 countries, the Daily Telegraph reports.
Sellmer set up a charity endorsed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his family. The US president was photographed opening an Advent calendar with his grandchildren. The photo ran in several national newspapers, and it helped proliferate the tradition in the United States.
The first chocolate Advent calendar appeared in 1958, but it wasn't until 13 years later that Cadbury brought it to the UK. And even then, there were not a regular fixture - the chocolate makers produced Advent calendars intermittently from 1972 to 1986. From 1993, they became a mainstay in the UK.
Nowadays, Advent calendars offer more than chocolate and colourful pictures. There could be alcohol behind the doors, or luxury items such as candles and perfumes. You can buy them on the cheap, or splash the cash on the most expensive Advent calendar, costing £1.7 million and containing 24 diamonds and carved glass angels.
Or, like me, you'll stuff your faces with chocolates until the big day!