You’re probably sick of hearing about Advent calendars (especially from us), but they’re such a fun holiday season pastime that we can’t help but round up the best ones over and over again! While this tradition has become a whimsical ritual that usually results in lots of candy, it also carries religious context and was practiced a bit differently when it first started.
Christian Advent, like Lent, technically refers to the weeks between the end of November and Christmas Day; the word “advent” comes from a Latin term that means “arrival.” Beginning on the Sunday closest to the day of the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle (Nov. 30) and running through the three following Sundays, Advent is thought to have been celebrated since the 4th century and began as a time to prepare for Christianity converts to prepare for baptism.
Now, though, Advent calendars don’t exactly coincide with the exact dates of Advent, and for most of us, they don’t have much to do with the birth of baby Jesus. Advent calendars as we know them now began with German Protestants in the mid-19th century. To count down the days leading up to Christmas, they would make marks with pieces of chalk on their doors or walls; other variations included hanging up a religious scene for every day leading up to Christmas or lighting a candle.
Then, in the early 1900s, a German newspaper included an insert of an Advent calendar as a holiday gift to its readers. A Mr. Gerhard Lang printed his own version of a calendar based on the kinds his mother used to make for him, upgrading as time went on from a simple board with 24 colored photos on it to a functional Advent calendar with doors. From there, the calendars boomed throughout Germany.
As for the United States, President Dwight D. Eisenhower is credited with making Advent calendars so popular: He was photographed opening one with his grandchildren in the 1950s, and the photo ran in all major newspapers during his presidency.
“Traditional” Advent calendars, like Lang’s, would include a new Bible verse found behind each day’s little door, as a way to call out how people would spend a little more time with their spirituality around the holiday season. Of course, that's changed some, too -- whether it was the commercialization of the calendars or the simple expectation that Christmas comes with treats, now it’s likely you’ll find some sweets in your Advent calendar.
Unless, of course, you get one of those crazy expensive ones.