I have always been curious about the humble beginnings of the advent calendar. And I was not all that surprised that - after a bit of research - I learned that the advent calendar, like the Christmas tree, saw its start in Germany. The advent wreath and advent candles may be variations on a theme, but the advent calendar itself is of thoroughly European design.
Advent is an important time for Christians and Protestants alike, as it marks the 24 days prior to the birth of the baby Jesus. How those 24 days got twisted into 24 opportunities to do your holiday shopping is almost like a slap in the face to the faithful, but there's not a lot that can be done about it in 2005.
Traditionally, the advent calendar kicks off on the fourth Sunday before December 25th. The advent calendar developed out of a simple family custom of making a chalk line on the inside of the front door for every day that passed en route to Christmas Eve. Some families would hang a small picture on their door instead and mark the time in this way. This evolved into an advent calendar with each day having a picture -- often hidden behind a small door -- leading up to Christmas Eve. Modern advent calendars often reflect something else beside Biblical themes or passages. Usually each day of the month has a small door or window that hides a piece of candy or a small toy.
The more creative came up with designs for an advent wreath or advent candles. Advent candles would be - you guessed it - 24 small candles arranged and lit one day at a time. The advent wreath usually has 4 candles within it - one candle for each of the four Sundays leading to Christmas eve.
Although the first advent calendar went on sale in the mid 1850's, it wasn't until Gerhard Lang created a small printed version in 1908 that proved to be a hit with children. Lang capitalized on his success with an evolving line of advent calendars and before you know it, other entrepreneurs with a lot more capital than Lang began mass producing their own advent calendars.
Lang - who was a printer by trade - enjoyed a privileged life courtesy of the calendars. But World War I and II put and end to his fortunes. Restrictions imposed by the Nazi regime closed Lang's printing shop and put an end to his profitable ways. Lang was not able to return to production until a year after the end of the war.
Enter printer and entrepreneur Richard Sellmer of Stuttgart, Germany. In 1946 he created the "postwar" Advent calendar. He had worked a deal to purchase his paper from the United States Army and his many contacts with Americans provided him with a stable client list for his advent calendars. By the 1950's the "Sellmar Advent Calendar' was well known and slowly his exports had made the calendar a popular item in the United States and abroad.
Fast-forward to the present and the Sellmar family business is now Germany's only printer that is devoted entirely to advent calendars, advents candles and advent wreathes.
The advent calendar and its offshoots are now big business for those who create them, but the origins of the calendar are worth remembering every now and then and should be revered more than just using the calendar as a reminder for how many days of shopping remain until Christmas.