As a Jewish person who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, it took me many years to figure out what an Advent calendar was. As a kid I heard the name and just assumed it was a weird December-only calendar that told people when Christmas was, which was baffling to me since Christmas is on the same date every year. But then I thought to myself, “Hey, maybe it’s an important tradition. I should be understanding.” After all, there’s an old Jewish tradition where you get to (lightly) whack your siblings with scallions on Passover (no, really, it’s an actual thing and it looks so fun), so who’s to say what’s normal and what’s not?
Anyway, I eventually discovered that it’s a calendar where every day of December leading up to Christmas you open a little compartment and get a gift. Which is way more awesome than a simple reminder that Christmas is (surprise!) on the same day it always is. But I still have questions. What does “Advent” mean? How did this tradition start? And what kinds are out there?
What does “Advent” mean?
Honestly, I was thinking so hard about the word “advent” in this context that I straight-up forgot that it’s just a word and it’s used in other contexts too, like, “Before the advent of personal computers, we used an abacus and an abundance of hope and we liked it.” So really “advent” just means the arrival of something. What’s arriving in this case? Jesus, naturally. “Advent” has also become synonymous with the period of four weeks (four Sundays, to be exact) leading up to Christmas, although most commercial Advent calendars just start on December 1 and go through the 24th or 25th, disregarding the number of Sundays involved. So now we know what Advent is, but why does it mean people get 25 different Bonne Maman mini jam jars or individual portions of cheese hidden behind cute little cardboard doors?
How did Advent calendars come to be?
While today Advent calendars are a great way to surprise yourself or a loved one with 24 to 25 tiny gifts, the tradition supposedly dates back to Germany in the 1800s, when, according to Mental Floss, protestants would light candles or make marks on their doors to count the days leading up to December 25. But the little gifts part didn’t come until the 20th century, when a German man named Gerhard Lang created a cardboard Advent calendar with an aesthetic he based on one his mother made for him, but with added little doors, just like the ones still around today. They became super popular in Germany but weren’t as popular in the U.S. until President Eisenhower posed for a picture with one. And the rest is Christmas history…
Lastly, what kind of Advent calendars are out there?
Well, I may not purchase them, but I have seen a great many advent calendars in my day. There are the aforementioned Bonne Maman Jam Jar ones, the countless chocolate- and booze-related ones, hot drink ones, there are li’l trinket ones, Marvel Funko Pop ones, and so much more. So get out there and find one that speaks to you! It’s honestly a great way to give a bunch of gifts to yourself or others without having to pick them all out. Late November/early December gift giving has certainly been a lot easier since the advent of the Advent calendar.