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Advent calendars, explained: Where they came from and why they're everywhere now

Advent calendars have begun growing in variety and creativity.
Mariia Symchych-Navrotska
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EyeEm/Getty Images
Advent calendars have begun growing in variety and creativity.

Happy Advent calendar season to all who observe.

For decades, many Americans have celebrated the 24 days until Christmas with the classic countdown calendars, opening little doors or drawers to reveal a small treat — traditionally a Bible verse, a toy or a piece of chocolate.

But companies are getting increasingly creative, meaning there's a much wider variety of Advent goodies to choose from these days.

Wine, makeup, jam, beef jerky, jewelry, pet treats, socks, skin care, hot sauce, candles, tea bags and Pokémon pieces are just some of this year's possibilities. There are also virtual calendars that offer new riddles, games and songs each day.

"They're just everywhere. Everything's an Advent calendar now," Marcia Mogelonsky, the director of insight, food and drink and market research firm Mintel, tells Morning Edition.

Here's a look at how we got here.

The calendars have their religious roots in Germany

First things first: The season of Advent dates back to the fourth century, and is celebrated by most Christian churches in the Western tradition. The four-week period begins on the Sunday closest to the feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle (Nov. 30) and lasts for the next three Sundays.

Scholars believe that the period was originally a season of preparation for the baptism of new Christians at the January Feast of Epiphany. Advent — which comes from the Latin word for "arrival" — gradually became associated with the coming of Christ, and by the Middle Ages was explicitly linked to Christmas.

Today, most Advent calendars don't technically cover the Advent season, but instead start on Dec. 1 and run through either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The reason is practical, as Vox explains: The length of the Advent season changes from year to year, so it's easier to pick a set number of days for calendars that can be reproduced or reused every season.

Advent calendars have their roots in the 19th century, when German Protestants started taking creative steps to mark the days leading up to Christmas, like ticking off chalk marks on walls or doors, lighting candles and placing straws in a Nativity crib.

Some families hung up a devotional image each day, which led to the creation of the first known handmade, wooden Advent calendar in 1851 and other early "Christmas clocks" and "Christmas candles" in the following years.

They made their way to the U.S. after World War II

German publisher Gerhard Lang is credited as the inventor of the printed Advent calendar, which was inspired by the childhood memory of his mom sewing 24 cookies into the lid of a box and allowing him to eat one each day of Advent.

Lang produced the first printed and commercial Advent calendar in the early 1900s — in partnership with illustrator Ernst Kepler — and continued to innovate over the years, including creating the first calendars with doors in the 1920s.

Other publishers followed suit, and by the 1930s Advent calendars were in high demand in Germany.

However, things took a dark turn during World War II, when paper was rationed and the Nazi Party banned the printing of illustrated calendars. As part of its effort to rebrand Christmas, the Third Reich later created its own Advent calendar — incorporating swastikas and other symbols, Vox reports — to be distributed to mothers and children.

At the end of the war, longing for normalcy, companies with the means returned to printing traditional Christmas Advent calendars — and returning service members brought them back to Europe and the U.S.

President Dwight Eisenhower gave them a huge popularity boost at home when national newspapers ran a photograph of him opening one with his grandchildren in 1953. Still, the Advent calendar needed a few more years and iterations to reach its final form (or at least the version that we know today).

The first chocolate-filled Advent calendars reportedly appeared on the scene in the 1950s, and Cadbury began commercially producing them in 1971. It took two more decades before they were popular enough for the company to put into continuous production — and the rest is history.

Customers form a line around the block at 8 a.m. for the launch of the 2017 Liberty London Beauty Advent Calendar in London in October 2017.
Eamonn M. McCormack / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Customers form a line around the block at 8 a.m. for the launch of the 2017 Liberty London Beauty Advent Calendar in London in October 2017.

They're increasingly popular with retailers and shoppers

Retailers of all kinds, from supermarkets to department stores, have been producing and selling more Advent calendars in recent years.

Reuters reports that U.K. chain Selfridges & Co. has 128 Advent calendars on sale this season, more than double last year's offerings; stateside, Saks Fifth Avenue is selling 18 types of calendars this year (with prices ranging from $65 to $3,500), up six from last year.

And while advent calendars come in different styles and sizes these days, Mogelonsky tells Morning Edition that they still accomplish some of the same things they set out to do centuries ago.

"We all need the gift of time. And this is a way of slowing us down," she says. "So it kind of prolongs the experience, as the original Advent calendar concept was when it was developed in the late 19th century as a way of marking the days 'til Christmas."

Plus, as NPR has reported, modern-day Advent calendars can be displayed all month, enjoyed with family and shared on social media.

And they're a great way for companies to get samples to customers, especially those who might go on to purchase more of their products down the road.

Mogelonsky notes that's especially important — and challenging — these days, with inflation high and recession fears looming.

"It's especially difficult to sell new products when the economy is not the best in the world, because you are reluctant to spend a big amount of money on something you might not like," she explains.

By bundling products together, retailers are subtly encouraging shoppers to spend more than they might otherwise. And brands are hoping people will go out and buy more — or full-size versions — of what they liked, even after the holiday season is over.

Advent calendars don't just have to be for Christmas, Mogelonsky says, so consider stocking up now for countdowns to future birthdays, graduations or other special occasions.

"Instead of one big gift, draw it out," she adds. "Slow time down a bit by counting the days 'til this happens."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.