Counting down to Christmas: A history of the Advent Calendar

Advent calendar
Advent calendar from Im Lande des Christkinds - 1903

Before we get into this, a quick reminder of what ‘advent’ actually is. In Latin the word ‘advent’ (adventus) means ‘arrival’ or ‘coming’, and it was originally believed that in the 4/5 centuries it was a period of time before the new year that involved prayer, penance and fasting before Christian converts being baptised. Basically, the exact opposite of dubious office parties and seasonal over-indulgence that usually takes place in the run-up to Christmas.

The tradition of marking the days until Christmas on an advent calendar likely started in 19th century Germany. Though the question of who the original inventor is still contested.

One strong contender for the title of ‘the inventor of the advent calendar’ is Gerhard Lang, or more specifically, Gerhard Lang’s mum. Incidentally, the other contender was an Austrian Protestant who, in 1902, sold calendars from his bookshop, but his invention didn’t come with anything edible and everyone knows an advent calendar MUST have chocolate at least. More on that later.

Anyway, Gerhard’s enterprising mum attached twenty-four cookies onto a square of cardboard for the young Gerhard to scoff in the days leading up to the festive season. When he was all grown up, Gerhard remembered his mum’s inspired idea and went on to manufacture his very own advent calendars in 1908 with his business partner Reichhold. He didn’t bother with the cookies but introduced the concept of concealing little pictures hidden behind little closed doors.

Unfortunately, the business came to an end in 1930 but the concept had caught on. A few years after Reichold & Lang went into liquidation, the Sankt Johannis Printing Company (among others) started producing advent calendars but, in this instance, with a distinctive twist on the original concept: goodbye twenty-four little doors concealing little pictures (and the vague possibility of chocolate) hello twenty-four little doors concealing biblical verse.

This was short-lived with the arrival of the Nazis who banned advent calendars in the 1940s, preferring to call them ‘pre-Christmas calendars’ and replaced the biblical verse with swastikas and exploding tanks.

After the war, the advent calendar had a renaissance and, for the first time in its history, began to appear outside of Germany, largely thanks to Richard Sellmer of Stuttgart (his company still produces more than a million calendars a year in 25 countries) who, in 1946, exported the tradition of printing advent calendars depicting snowy, winter scenes; motifs that have come to define the aesthetics of Christmas.

And now for the six-million-dollar question, when did chocolate begin appearing in advent calendars? There are rumours that they appeared in the latter half of the 1950s, but it didn’t catch on. Even when Cadbury began to commercially produce chocolate advent calendars in 1971, no one was overly taken with this fusion of glitter-sprayed cardboard and little renditions of Santa immortalised in chocolate. It took a further two decades before Cadbury’s put chocolate advent calendars into continuous production, which seems almost absurd when you think about how many chocolate advent calendars there are in the shops, right now.

But what if you’re up for something more than suspicious-looking bits of whiteish, year-old chocolate lurking behind poorly functioning perforated cardboard portals? Don’t despair! The boffins at Porsche have come up with an advent calendar that’ll set you back more than a million dollars! I’d love to tell you more, but I’ve hit my word count. Merry Christmas,