Rediscovering Catholic Traditions: Advent and Christmas Calendars

Advent calendar | Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

As Christmas draws near, I am reminded of my childhood. Every day before Christmas in December my three younger siblings and I decorated our Advent/Christmas calendar. My parents bought us a calendar with 24 pockets for each day of December, all of which were filled with a decorated felt piece to adorn the tree on top.

My mom had mapped out a routine so that each child took turns putting the pieces on the tree. That way, we each picked six felt pieces. My sister and I always argued over who got to put on the doll, and we all saved the star for the last day, Christmas Eve, to top off the tree. My two brothers fought over who got to go first, but since I was the oldest, I always beat them to it.

As a child, when it was my day to decorate the tree, I ran downstairs and explored my options for a few minutes before selecting the perfect felt piece. My brothers and sister did the same until Christmas Eve rolled around.

By that time, every pocket had been emptied and the tree was jam-packed with the felt ornaments. The four of us could barely contain our excitement because that meant Christmas was almost here!

Revolutionary Idea

The tradition of Advent/Christmas calendars is more popular now than ever before, although it dates back at best to 1851. Some families made a chalk line for every day in December until Christmas Eve. I picture those chalk lines on the mantel for all to see how close Christmas was getting.

Another early style was the Advent candle set, which included a candle for each of the days until Christmas, similar to today’s Advent wreath. Christmas Eve was the last day to make a chalk line or light a candle, although many of today’s Advent calendars include Christmas itself.

There and Back

Despite their enormous popularity, and after the production of 30 different designs, Advent/Christmas calendars took a brief hiatus from the 1930s until 1946 because World War II shortages stopped their production. Cardboard was rationed, it was forbidden to produce calendars with pictures and, of course, nothing from Germany could be imported to the United States. In 1946, they regained their acceptance and became as popular as ever.

There are now many varieties: permanent ones with little drawers that are opened every day, religious icons behind the different doors, characters familiar to children and felt pieces to decorate a tree (my personal favorite!). The traditional ones are still made of cardboard and paper with a small treasure behind each door.

Advent/Christmas calendars are an enjoyable way for everyone, adults, and children alike, to prepare for the feast of Christmas. In counting down the days of Advent until Jesus comes, we are reminded to reflect spiritually on our lives. Even as the Christmas season becomes increasingly secular, Advent still brings happiness through the observance of ancient customs. Advent/Christmas calendars are one traditional way to keep in mind the true spirit of Christmas.

Advent/Christmas Calendars

A version of this popular tradition was first printed in Germany in 1908 by Gerhard Lang, a Swabian parishioner. When he was a child, his mother made him a calendar with 24 candies stuck to a piece of cardboard, leading up to Christmas Day. Later in his life, he worked at Reichhold and Lang, a printing office where he made small colored pictures to be attached to cardboard every day in December.

This model was originally named a “Christmas calendar.” A few years later, he produced the first Advent/Christmas calendar with doors to open, behind which the child might find a small piece of candy, a Christmas picture or a religious picture.

Advent/Christmas calendars soon spread throughout Europe and North America where the Sankt Johannes Printing Company started producing them with Bible verses behind the doors.

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