An Advent calendar is a special calendar which is used to count or celebrate the days of Advent in anticipation of Christmas. Some calendars are strictly religious, whereas others are secular in content. Despite the name, most commercially available Advent calendars begin on December 1, regardless of when Advent begins, which can be as early as November 27 and as late as December 3.
Today, most Advent calendars are made for children. Many take the form of a large rectangular card with “windows” of which there are often 24; one for each day of December leading up to Christmas Day. One is opened every day during Advent. In many of these calendars, each window opens to reveal an image, a poem, or a portion of a story such as the story of the Nativity of Jesus. More elaborate Advent calendars have a small gift concealed in each window, such as a toy or a chocolate item.
The origins of the Advent calendar come from German Lutherans who, at least as early as the beginning of the 19th century would count down the first 24 days of December physically. Often this meant simply drawing a chalk line on the door each day, beginning on December 1. Some families had more elaborate means of marking the days, such as lighting a new candle (perhaps the genesis of today’s Advent wreath) or hanging a little religious picture on the wall each day.
The 24 candles might also be placed on a structure, which was known as an “Advent clock”. In December 1839, the first verifiable public Advent wreath was hung in the prayer hall of the Rauhes Haus (relief house) in Hamburg, although it had been a family practice in parts of German-speaking Europe since the 17th century.
The first known Advent calendar was handmade in 1851. The first printed Advent calendar was produced in Hamburg in 1902 or 1903. Other authorities state that a Swabian parishioner, Gerhard Lang, was responsible for the first printed calendar, in 1908.
Lang was certainly the progenitor of today’s calendar. He was a printer in the firm Reichhold & Lang of Munich who, in 1908, made 24 little colored pictures that could be affixed to a piece of cardboard. Several years later, he introduced a calendar with 24 little doors. He created and marketed at least 30 designs before his firm went out of business in the 1930s. In this same time period, Sankt Johannis Printing Company started producing religious Advent calendars, with Bible verses instead of pictures behind the doors.