“The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.” – Eden Phillpotts
In the Western Christian tradition, Advent begins on Advent Sunday, the fourth Sunday before Christmas. This day also begins the church’s year. Advent can occur on any day between November 27 and December 3, so there’s only a one-in-seven chance of it falling on December 1. Not that anyone seems to care. Despite their name, “Advent” calendars are now firmly established as a secular custom, and the first door is opened (or the first chocolate consumed) on December 1, a date whose main function is to remind us that there are only 24 shopping days until Christmas.
In Britain and the United States, a quarter of all personal spending for the year takes place in December.
Advent comes from the Latin adventus, meaning “arrival”; it was meant to be a season of fasting and contemplation, in preparation for the feast of Christmas. Despite this, it often started with the raucous celebration of St Andrew’s Day on November 30. “Tandrew” customs included schoolchildren locking their teachers out of the classroom, organised squirrel hunts, and cross-dressing. An 1851 account describes how “Women might be seen walking about in male attire, while men and boys clothed in female dress visited each other’s cottages, drinking hot ‘eldern wine’, the staple beverage of the season”.
Counting down the days to Christmas was a custom of German Lutherans in the early 19th century. At first, they would either light a candle every day or cross off each day on a blackboard.
In 1908, Gerhard Lang (1881-1974) of the Bavarian publishers Reichhold & Lang, devised a commercial version – a piece of card, accompanied by a packet of 24 small illustrations that could be glued on for each day of the season. Lang’s business failed in the Thirties (calling them “Munich calendars” didn’t prove popular abroad).
In 1946, another German publisher, Richard Sellmer from Stuttgart, revived the idea and focused his efforts on the US market, setting up a charity endorsed by President Eisenhower and his family. In 1953, he acquired the US patent and the calendar became an immediate success, with Sellmer earning the title of “the General Secretary of Father Christmas”. His company still produces more than a million calendars a year in 25 countries.
The first Advent calendars containing chocolate were produced by Cadbury in 1958.
The town of Gengenbach on the edge of the Black Forest in Germany takes advantage of the fact that its picturesque 18th century town hall has 24 windows facing the main square. In late November the building is transformed into what the residents claim is the world’s largest advent calendar.
Other German towns have now caught on to the idea and are competing to produce more spectacular versions.
In Nordic countries there is a tradition of having an Advent television series that starts on December 1 and runs until Christmas Eve. The first one ran in 1960 on Swedish television. Shops stock paper “Julekalendars” to accompany the series, with a window to open each day that ties in with the plot of the show.
Until the beginning of the 19th century, every English town had a band of official musicians called “waits”. They were like musical traffic wardens, with special silver chains and uniforms, engaging in civic business such as waking people for work on dark winter mornings, welcoming visiting dignitaries and leading mayoral processions. Their instrument of choice was the shawn, or “wait-pipe”, a very loud woodwind instrument that sounds like a cross between a trumpet and a vuvuzela. In 1835, they fell victim to the Municipal Reform Act, which attempted to overhaul local government corruption and cronyism. The name survives in “Christmas waits”, otherwise known as “carol singers”.