What is an advent calendar, and why do we have them?  Get ready to delve behind the door on this beloved countdown tradition.

Traditional Wooden Advent Calendar

Since the 1800s, advent calendars have shaped the way we build anticipatoin for the festive season.  But our Christmas countdown companions have evolved substantially over time. 

Curious to know which country kick-started the daily advent counting ritual?  Keep reading to uncover the origins of the earliest calendars, learn about the innovator behind today’s modern versions, and discover the surprising connection between a US President and our Christmas countdown customs.

Need advent calendar inspiration?  Click here for ideas galore!

The word advent comes from the Latin word “adventus”, meaning arrival.  It is the name used to describe the period of spiritual preparation in the Christian faith ahead the arrival of the baby Jesus and can be traced back as far as the 4th Century.

By comparison the advent calendar is a relatively recent invention and was created to help children visualise the time leading up to Christmas Day.

Fever-pitch festive anticipation is clearly nothing new!

What Is An Advent Calendar?

The Cambridge dictionary describes an Advent calendar as:

“A decorative piece of card or cloth with a small space or window for each of the days of the month before Christmas. Each day a space or window is opened to find a different picture, a piece of chocolate, or a present.”

Of course, the definition can’t convey the excitement that an advent calendar evokes in both children and adults alike! 

Revealing hidden treats throughout the days of December has come to symbolise the joy of the season of advent and is one of our most treasured annual Christmas traditions.

Traditional Chocolate Advent Calendar

Traditional Chocolate Advent Calendar

The History Of Advent Calendars

It was back in the 19th century that the idea of infusing excitement into the Christmas countdown took root. But the first advent calendars looked very different from ours today. 

The First Advent Calendars

Early advent calendars were rather different from their modern counterparts!  Parents added chalk marks to a wall or door for children to wipe away each day.  For some, straws were added to the nativity crib instead.

Around the same time people started lighting candles on an Advent wreath to signify the four-week period before Christmas.

An Advent Wreath With 4 Lit Candles

Advent Wreaths Were Used To Symbolise The Four Weeks Of Advent

One of the first picture advent calendars on record was described in a German children’s book from 1851, where the author Elise Averdieck tells the story of a little girl Elisabeth adding a new Christmas picture to the wallpaper each evening until Christmas Eve as her mother shares festive stories and songs. 

But these calendars were handmade individually. 

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the first printed advent calendar appeared.

Who Invented The Printed Advent Calendar?

German printer and publisher Gerhard Lang is widely credited as the father of the printed advent calendar.  But you could say that it’s the woman behind the man who set the wheels in motion… 

Gerhard’s mother created an advent calendar for her young son with 24 small Wibele cookies sewn into the lid of a cardboard box, one for each day of advent.  It was this childhood calendar that is said to have inspired the adult Gerhard in the early 1900s. 

In The Land of The Christ Child First Printed Advent Calendar Reichhold & Lang

In The Land of The Christ Child First Printed Advent Calendar Reichhold & Lang

He decided to forego the cookies (we can only assume for ease with larger scale production .. otherwise why would you?!?!) and replaced them with pictures to mark each day.  And in 1908, Reichhold & Lang produced the first commercial advent calendar *.

*It’s worth mentioning here that a “Christmas Clock” was published in 1902 and some regard this as the first printed calendar.  However as the clock is arguably marking the 12 days of Christmas rather than the advent season, the debate continues! 

**We should also say that there is some discussion as to whether the first Lang calendar was in fact printed five years earlier in 1903. 

When Did Advent Calendars Start To Have Doors?

This first design did not have any doors.  Instead there were 24 pictures which were to be cut out and glued over 24 short numbered Christmas verses to cover the calendar. 

It wasn’t until around 1920 that the iconic paper calendar doors were added to the design. 

Has It Always Been Called An Advent Calendar?

Over the years, advent calendars have been known by various names.  They were ‘Christmas calendars’, and even ‘Pre-Christmas Calendars’ during the second world war. 

At one point they were known as St Nicholas Calendars.  But these were typically delivered on December 6th, St Nicholas Day, and so didn’t cover all the days of advent.

Eventually however the name ‘Advent Calendar’ grew in popularity and stuck. 

Birth of Modern Day Calendars

Advent Calendars In Germany

The advent calendar tradition had a bit of a bumpy beginning, in large part due to the impact of the first and second world wars.  By the end of the 1930s, German families were enthusiastically embracing this new tradition and several publishers had released designs. 

However during World War II paper was scarce and only publishing house Franz Eher Verlag was exempt from the ban on printing illustrated calendars. 

But the impact didn’t last long and production of advent calendars recovered quickly when the wars finished, with international interest growing too.

Richard Sellmer The Little Town Advent Calendar

‘The Little Town’ Advent Calendar. Image Credit: Richard Sellmer Publishing House

The Presidential Seal Of Approval

One of the new post-war advent calendar publishing houses was Richard Sellmer in Stuttgart.  Who could have predicted the impact their 1946 ‘The Little Town’ calendar would have on our modern traditions?! 

With little doors to peek behind along a row of wintry houses, this was the first advent calendar to go on sale in the United States*.  It caught the imagination of the grandchildren of President at the time, Dwight D. Eisenhower. 

President Eisenhower & grandchildren enjoying the Sellmer Advent Calendar

President Eisenhower & grandchildren enjoying the Sellmer Advent Calendar. Image Credit: Richard Sellmer Publishing House

The President’s enthusiasm captured the attention of the media and hearts of the American people who embraced the new trend wholeheartedly.  Creativity boomed and the calendar evolved from a simple countdown tool into the cherished holiday tradition with global appeal we know today! 

*Richard Sellmer is still one of the largest producers of advent calendars today and you can still purchase that cheerful 1946 design – the original “look through the keyhole”! 

The First Chocolate Advent Calendar

When was the first chocolate advent calendar produced?  Isn’t that the question we really want to answer?!  The answer is earlier than you might think! 

It was right back in around 1926 that Reichhold & Lang partnered with chocolate producers Stollwerck to create the first chocolate calendar in Germany – ‘The Christmas Rose’.  So feel confident in your chocolate calendar – it really is one of the traditional advent calendar designs!

It wasn’t until nearly 30 years later, in 1958, that mass marketed chocolate advent calendars came to market however.  And a further 13 years before Cadbury joined the party in the UK.  Even then Cadbury chocolate calendars didn’t become an established part of the advent calendar scene until 1993, explaining my deprived childhood wink.

Chocolate Advent Calendar With 4 Doors Open

Chocolate Advent Calendar

Nowadays

Nowadays the advent calendar is synonymous with the Christmas countdown.  Its roots remain in Christian tradition but the calendar is now as much about building up to the celebration of Christmas and arrival of Santa Claus as it is a way to mark the religious advent period.

According to Richard Sellmer Publishing House, the British have the highest demand for advent calendars outside Germany.  But even in countries without a significant Christian tradition, such as Japan, the Christmas calendar has continued growing in popularity.

Modern advent calendars start on December 1st and run up to Christmas Day rather than with the start of the advent period (which, being the fourth Sunday before Christmas, changes each year).

Modern Elegant Pink & White Advent Calendar

Modern Elegant Pink & White Advent Calendar

The little presents behind the calendar doors have evolved considerably too.  Whilst picture advent calendars are still popular across the world, now calendars offer huge promotional opportunity for companies to share advent treats and tasters in place of those traditional drawings and chocolates.

Even today homemade advent calendars remain popular too, just like the cookie calendar made by Gerhard Lang’s mother all those years ago!

Characteristics of Advent Calendars

Anything that enables the countdown to Christmas Day can arguably be called an advent calendar!  But tradition dictates that an advent calendar will typically have the following three components:

Numbers: Whether counting down to Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, an advent calendar traditionally has numbers to count up towards the big day building anticipation for the festive celebrations.

Doors: Daily treats are concealed behind small doors to be opened each day.  In more modern calendars these doors may be replaced by drawers, pockets or anything else that can be opened!  The excitement of peaking behind the door for each daily surprise has universal appeal!

Hidden Treats: Each day of the countdown, there is a little treat waiting to be discovered.  Traditionally these were small pictures or a bible verse.  But calendars have evolved and become more sophisticated often including a piece of chocolate or small gifts on a theme.  A daily dose of festive fun to add to the fervour and magic of the season.

Hands Opening An Advent Calendar door to reveal a chocolate

Opening An Advent Calendar

Modern Advent Calendar Designs

In recent years the world of advent calendars has exploded!  There are more types of calendars on offer than any of us will have years to enjoy.  Unique and exciting, these new designs offer diverse themes, innovative formats, and unexpected surprises.

Traditional Advent Calendars

The classic picture and chocolate advent calendars are still the most popular designs.  With their nostalgic appeal, they still encapsulate the spirit of the season.

Advent Calendars For Adults

Whilst advent calendars for children have long been seasonal staples, the popularity of advent calendars for adults has risen exponentially in recent years with the introduction of branded designs. 

From Liberty’s annual array of beauty products to Star Wars collectibles, wine calendars and everything in between.  They offer a fun way for the whole family to join in celebrating advent and the opportunity for a bit of grown-up holiday magic!

Woman opening advent calendar by the Christmas tree

There’s a wealth of advent calendars available for adults now too

Digital Advent Calendars

Traditionally of course these calendars are physical objects but now there’s plenty of digital editions on offer as well.  These are convenient and offer an easy way to share the experience online. 

Popular for businesses to share on their social media during December, they are convenient and an easy way to offer a shared experience online.  Who can resist a little advent excitement opening virtual doors?! 

Living Advent Calendars

Great for fostering community spirit, living advent calendars are created by a neighbourhood coming together to put on a joint display throughout December.

Teddies at Number 5 on the Advent Trail

Window for Number 5 in a Living Advent Calendar Display

Advent Calendars For Pets

Even our furry friends now get in on the advent calendar action with a whole host of pet-friendly options on offer.  What a lovely way to include our 4-legged family members in the festivities?!

Reverse Advent Calendars

A wonderful variation on the advent calendar tradition.  Rather than receiving daily treats, reverse advent calendars encourage us to share with others on the run up to Christmas.

Reusable Advent Calendars

Increased awareness of the environmental impact of one-use products has certainly made many question the effect of throw-away calendars.

Consequently there’s a growing trend for refillable calendars with their daily treats renewed annually.  Their familiarity becomes part of the magical nostalgia of the celebration of advent.

Advent Calendar Filled With Small Gifts

Reusable Advent Calendar Filled With Small Gifts

DIY Advent Calendars

A lovely holiday tradition is that of homemade advent calendars, lovingly created for friends and family and often enjoyed year on year.  These DIY calendars bring a fabulous personal touch to the holiday season and become part of cherished family traditions.

Advent Calendar Traditions Around the World

Advent calendars are believed to have originated in Germany but the tradition gained popularity in many countries around the world.

While they continue to hold strong significance in countries with Christian traditions, such as Germany, United Kingdom & United States, their popularity has also spread to places with diverse cultures.

For example in some parts of Asia, the concept of counting down to Christmas with daily surprises has been embraced, even if Christmas itself isn’t widely celebrated.

There is a rich tapestry of Advent traditions across the globe, each contributing to the festive spirit of the holiday season in their unique way.

Nordic Julekalender

In Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway the advent countdown takes the form of a TV/radio show, known as Julekalender.  The first radio show took place in Denmark in 1957 before extending across all the Nordic countries.  With 24 episodes it airs daily from the first of December until Christmas Eve.

24-stjerners julekalender 2022 Norway TV Advent Calendar

Norway’s TV Advent Calendar in 2022: 24-stjerners julekalender. Image Credit: NRK

Las Posadas In Mexico

More akin to a Living Advent Calendar, in Mexico Las Posadas is a nine-day celebration starting on December 16th and continuing up to Christmas.  Families hold processions, prayers, and feasts as they re-enact Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging.  Each night, participants move from house to house, symbolising the journey to Bethlehem.

Advent Calendar Records

The Most Expensive Advent Calendar

Every year high end jewellers compete for the title of most expensive advent calendar.  In 2022, this crown went to Ingle & Rhode whose eye-watering £25,000 calendar included diamond earrings, gold cufflinks and even an oval sapphire engagement ring for Christmas Day.

The silver lining (so to speak) is that the contents of the calendar were estimated at around £3,500 higher making that some hefty discount if you happen to have the funds!

This calendar is a mere drop in the ocean however when compared to the US$10.4 million custom-made calendar created by Debbie Wingham in 2021 for an anonymous Swiss family.  Arguably more ’12 Days of Christmas’ this calendar was designed to mark the family’s upcoming year of global travel.  Its 12 compartments were filled with designer watches, artwork, and luxury luggage, all themed to the family’s travel plans.

The Largest Advent Calendar

According to the Guinness World Records, the largest advent calendar was built at St Pancras station in London in December 2007 to mark the station’s refurbishment.  At 71m tall and 23m wide it certainly would have stopped people in their tracks!

Fastest Time To Eat All The Chocolates

Whilst we can’t all indulge in the most valuable or tall advent calendar display, surely we can all try and scoff some Christmas countdown chocolate!  But can we do it faster than Kevin Strahle (aka L.A. Beast) who managed a whole calendar’s worth in 1min 27.84sec!

Making Advent Calendars

Making your own advent calendar is such a wonderful Christmas tradition.  DIY calendars can be personalised exactly for their lucky recipient and make even become treasured heirlooms and lifelong traditions!

How Do You Make The Calendar?

Virtually everything can be converted into an advent calendar, from ornately handsewn heirlooms to a basket of numbered paper bags.  Skill, budget, and time availability need not be an issue.  

Handstitched Advent Calendar filled with treats

Handmade Advent Calendar filled with treats

What Goes Inside An Advent Calendar?

Of course, traditional advent calendars contain drawings, messages or chocolate treats.

But you can fill an advent calendar with whatever you choose:

  1. Handpicked small gifts
  2. Photos and motivational phrases
  3. Suggestions of family activities to share
  4. Ideas for acts of kindness
  5. Riddles and jokes

How Many Days Are In An Advent Calendar?

Typically there are 24 or 25 days in an advent calendar.  However neither option is wrong. 

Advent calendars typically start on the December 1st.

They may finish on Christmas Eve as the main celebrations begin, or they may continue up to Christmas Day itself.  Often if the calendar runs to December 25th, there will be an extra special treat to mark the last day.

However you’ll find plenty of calendars on the market offering a 12-day countdown which is more like the classic 12 Days of Christmas.  So there is no hard and fast rule!

If you’re making a DIY advent calendar, just make it for whatever number of days you’d prefer. 

How To Use An Advent Calendar

Small hands reach up to open advent calendar boxes hanging from branch

The anticipation of opening each daily treat never grows old!

How To Use The Calendar

Using an Advent calendar is a joyful way to count down to Christmas, from the beginning of December until the main Christmas season itself.

Each day, open the appropriately numbered door or compartment to unveil a surprise, whether it’s a treat, activity, or kind gesture. Share the experience with loved ones for a festive holiday tradition.

When Do You Start An Advent Calendar?

Advent officially begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas which of course varies year on year.  The first Sunday of advent can actually range from November 27th to December 3rd.

However advent calendars traditionally start on the 1st December and count down the 24 days to Christmas Eve, or 25 days to Christmas Day.

Felt Advent Calendar

Felt Advent Calendar

Ideas for Advent Calendar Traditions

Incorporating advent calendar activities into your Christmas celebration is all about adding extra joy and anticipation to the festive season. Consider these ideas to make it special for your family:

Match to your family’s interests and traditions: Choose an Advent calendar that aligns with your family’s passions, whether it’s a favourite movie, hobby, or even a DIY-themed calendar you can create together.  Check out these ideas for inspiration.

Interactive Unveiling: Make the daily unveiling a moment of togetherness. Gather around the calendar, take turns opening the doors, and share in the surprise.

Acts of Kindness: Create a unique Advent calendar by filling it with kind gestures. Each day, draw a good deed for the family to accomplish, spreading joy in your community.

Holiday Bucket List: Write down activities like ice skating, decorating the tree, or watching a holiday movie. Pull one out each day to decide how to make the most of the festive season.

Storytime Countdown: Combine reading and Advent with a book advent calendar. Perfect for story time and snuggles.

Daily Challenges: Craft a series of fun challenges or puzzles. Solve riddles, take on trivia questions, or engage in scavenger hunts to add an element of adventure.

Homemade Goodies: Fill your calendar with homemade treats, like cookies, trinkets, or little crafts you’ve made together.

Reverse Advent: In the spirit of giving, use the Advent calendar to collect items for donation. Each day, add a non-perishable food item or clothing item to a box for a local charity.

Digital Countdown: Utilise technology with a digital Advent calendar to be enjoyed with family further afield.

Create a Keepsake: Craft an Advent calendar that can be reused each year, becoming a cherished heirloom passed down through generations.

Homemade Advent Calendar Numbers

Making Advent Calendars Can Be Fun For The Whole Family

Summary

From their simple beginnings in the 1800s to the fantastic array of designs today, advent calendars have evolved into one of our most cherished traditions.

Whether you’re flipping open doors for hidden treasures, embracing daily challenges, or spreading kindness, these calendars add an extra layer of festive excitement for everyone.

The key is to make them fun, interactive, and reflective of your family’s unique holiday traditions and values.

So, what is an advent calendar?

It’s that anticipation-building, heart-warming kick-off to the holiday season we all adore.

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