So the big day is just around the corner and there are not many doors left to open on our Advent calendars. This year might be the first since I had children that I didn’t buy each of them one. Time seemed to run away with me, and before I knew it, we were well into December and so there didn’t seem to be much point. The fact that my children are aged 26, 24 and 20 may also have been a factor!
I was discussing Advent calendars with my mum and when she was a child, they didn’t seem to exist on the North York Moors, or if they did, she certainly never had one. She also didn’t think she gave them to us children after she had become a mum herself. However, I do remember them being around occasionally, and the excitement of opening up the door each day to see what Christmassy picture would be revealed, the anticipation heightening as the closed doors grew fewer and fewer. We didn’t need such luxuries as chocolate because the thrill of revealing the picture was enough.
I’m not sure when calendars containing sweets started to appear, although some of our posher friends did have those big cloth ones that you would hang on a wall with a sweet or a small gift in each of the 24 pockets. But it seemed that by the time my children were of school age, calendars containing chocolate were very much the norm. In fact it was really difficult to find any without them, yet I was determined that my children would experience the same excitement I had but without the need for a sweet treat. I tried it, but the disappointment on the little faces that there was no chocolate hidden behind the door was too much for any mother to bear, and by the following year I had caved in again. I compromised though, and managed most years to find one without sweets, and so for a time, my kids were lucky enough to get both.
The first printed Advent calendars appeared Germany in the early 1900s, although before that the countdown to Christmas Day had been marked by, for example, chalk marks on walls. We are not certain who invented the idea of a calendar with doors, but the most often repeated tale involves a German boy called Gerhard Lang. Gerhard’s mother would attach 24 sweets or biscuits to a large piece of card, and he was allowed to eat one every day until Christmas.
As an adult, Lang recalled the sense of excitement that he felt at being able to eat his treat, and how that increased as he counted down the days to 25th December. He hit on the idea of creating a printed calendar where a different festive picture would be hidden behind 24 doors. He began mass producing these with his business partner until the 1930s when they went bust. By then, though, his idea had caught on, and calendars were being produced and bought all over the Western world. Here in the UK, it was during the 1950s that they really took off and became one of our annual Christmas traditions.
The popularity of chocolate calendars is surprisingly recent though. There were attempts in the 1960s to introduce them, and Cadbury produced its first one in 1971. I was quite pleased to learn that us Brits resisted them for a long time, concerned that Christmas was becoming too focussed on the gifts rather than than the spiritual aspect but, as we might come to expect, commercialisation won out, and Cadbury’ chocolate Advent calendars finally went into continuous production in 1993. They have never looked back.
Today you can get practically anything in an Advent calendar, such as perfume, toiletries and even toys. However I was very happy to come across a traditional pretty cardboard calendar in a shop in my local market town. As she’d never had one in her childhood days, I decided it was time that my mum had the chance to enjoy her very first one.
I don’t know about you though, but every time she opens up one of those doors, the excitement has been replaced by dread that I have so little time left and so much to do!
I’d like to wish you all a very Happy Christmas!
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 23rd and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 21st December 2022