The Advent calendar is one of our most beloved Christmas traditions, right up there with trimming the tree and laying out milk and cookies for Santa Claus. But where does it come from -- and in our busy 21st century world, where is it going?
In the Beginning
The term "Advent" is actually a religious term referring to the four weeks leading up to Christmas (or the "advent" of Christ). That means Advent usually doesn't begin on December 1st but at the end of November. In practical terms, though, people have used December 1st as the beginning of their countdown for over three hundred years.
People have always enjoyed having something to look forward to, and even before the frenzied commercialism of gift giving, Christmas was a season to remember, and Christmas traditions helped people count down the days. As early as the 17th century, families would mark chalk lines on the walls to give themselves a visual reference as to how many days remained until the holiday.
Oh, Those Victorians....
We often associate Christmas traditions with Victoriana with good reason. Christmas really enjoyed itself in the 19th century! Long before Queen Victoria's husband brought the German tradition of the Christmas tree to England, German families had marked the days to Christmas with wreaths, pictures, and various other physical actions.
In fact, it was shortly after the turn of the century, in the early 1900s, when the first Advent calendar was actually printed commercially.
Now and Beyond
Of course, most people nowadays associate Christmas traditions with getting something, and that's why so many Advent calendars have chocolate treats hidden behind their doors. There have been many criticisms of these modern Advent calendars, which some believe buy too strongly into commercial Christmas and move away from what is essentially Advent.
Other countries have opened their own Christmas traditions to countdown. In Scandinavia, for example, there is actually a television show that begins on December 1st and ends on the 24th. These shows give the entire country a method of counting down to Christmas together.
But for the true Advent calendar, the place to be remains Germany. Many communities transform buildings in their towns (or in one memorable case, a town hall with twenty four windows) into living Advent calendars, with beautiful Christmas scenes illuminated one by one as the days to Christmas pass by. Most believe that the Advent calendar originated in Germany, but like so many Christmas traditions, it has spread to the entire world.