Do stay for tea and coffee: ‘The Advent calendar-makers have spotted a window of opportunity’
Paul Kerensa looks behind the Advent calendar door
Advent calendar this year? Chocolate or biblical pictures? Or gin or smellies? Oh yes, the calendar-makers have spotted a window of opportunity. Some say their days are numbered – but it looks like as one door closes, another one opens.
We hear often (well, not often, unless we spend our time at Advent calendar conventions – unlikely) that ‘Christian’ calendars are being pushed out in favour of secular non-Christian, chocolate-filled calendars. Of course this happened a long time ago. Also I’m not entirely sure that a piece of cardboard can be Christian, but I take the point.
I suppose market forces rule. If more people buy chocolate calendars, more shops stock them. Supermarkets don’t think religious calendars will sell, so Mars gets the shelf space instead. Christian bookshops or websites are our best source of the calendars with shepherds and angels rather than Snickers and Maltesers – or if you’re lucky, you might find one with chocolate shaped like biblical characters – a foot in both camps.
The divide between church and commerce even means beginning the season at different times. Officially Advent begins on Advent Sunday – which this year is as early as it can be, 27 November. Other years it can be as late as December 3rd. Sometimes the Church is early, sometimes late. This year, we can gloat that we’re in full Advent mode days before the first chocs are revealed.
The earliest Advent calendars began on Advent Sunday too. In fact the earliest Advent calendars weren’t calendars at all, but chalk marks on a wall, counting the days, like the caricature of a prisoner in a cell. Christmas is something to be built up to; Advent is a time of waiting.
Advent has been celebrated since the fifth century, but it’s only a century since calendars went commercial, thanks to an enterprising German family. Gerhard Lang used to love the sweets on string that his Mutti made for him each Advent, so he marketed his own card calendars from 1908. Newspapers started offering similar versions as freebies, so Lang upped his game, adding cardboard doors with a picture or Bible verse behind each. From the 1920s, to save redesigning to a new Advent Sunday each year, he began every calendar with December 1st. Effectively, Lang reset Advent.
It took until the 1950s for chocolate to find its way inside – and those versions outsold biblical ones rather swiftly. So the Bible verses were there before the chocolate, but sweets on string were there before the Bible verses… but then Advent was property of the Church long before Mrs Lang spoiled her son’s teeth with dangled confectionery. So in terms of who got to Advent calendars first – Church or commerce – how far back do you go?
As with all Christmas customs, I suppose we go right back, to the manger. Ultimately, whether our doors reveal a chocolate reindeer or a non-edible picture of Mary, what matters is what – who – was in that first stable, with no door at all. Born in a barn, the doorway was open – and it’s open to all today. Jesus grew up to say, ‘I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved.’ Access to God the Father, via the Son.
So perhaps the first Advent calendar door was somehow the child we find at the end of Advent – he whose Father’s house has many rooms.
Whether you enjoy mini Bounty bars, Bible verses or Baileys behind your calendar’s doors, this Advent remember the Bethlehem baby who first opened the door to us, inviting us to his Father’s house of many rooms. Then our future can be full of hope, our Christmas can be full of joy and, alright, our tummies may be full of chocolate.
Paul Kerensa is a comedian and author of the book Hark! The Biography of Christmas, published by Lion
This article was published in the December 2022 / January 2023 edition of Reform