Advent calendars hold a peculiar place among popular Christmas traditions. They’re not that old. The earliest known version of an Advent calendar barely counts a century and a half, and the practice of putting treats in it is scarcely half that old.
They’re also not considered a must-have holiday treat like gingerbread cookies, peppermint candy canes, or various assorted European pastries (Italian panettone, German stollen, English fruitcake, etc.).
Turn around and ask a person what’s the first Christmas treat that comes to mind when they think about it; hardly anyone will answer “an Advent calendar.” And yet the Advent calendar business is booming.
There’s just something about a box containing 24 little treats that have captivated the minds of both adults and children, adults even more so. It’s not just about Advent calendar chocolate anymore; it’s a huge industry that spans tea and coffee, cheese, alcoholic drinks, beauty, makeup, toys, and even pet goods. And you know puppies and kitties have little interest in where their treats come from as long as they get them.
No, those Advent calendars - as most Advent calendars these days - aren’t intended for the pets; they’re intended for the owners, the adults with disposable income. And the sales only keep increasing from year to year.
According to a survey conducted by GlobalData in 2018, more than 70% of shoppers purchase Advent calendar chocolate, with over 10% of buyers adding other types of Advent calendars to their holiday shopping lists. It’s an industry bringing in hundreds of billions of dollars. Not too shabby for something most people seem to consider non-essential.
What is an Advent Calendar?
Advent calendars count down days from the start of December to Christmas. They can be tentatively described as surprise gift boxes, as most are divided into 24 sections, each covered with a small cardboard door and hiding some kind of a treat, most commonly (but indeed not only) a piece of chocolate.
Advent calendars emerged from the tradition of counting down the days from the First Sunday of Advent (the Sunday closest to November 30th, the feast day of St. Andrew) to Christmas Day. It was started by German Lutherans, who initially marked each day simply by lighting a candle or putting a chalk mark on walls or doors.
Over the centuries, the tradition shifted to putting up a new devotional image every day, which gained a quick hold among German Christmas traditions. Soon, for the sake of simplicity, the Advent images were unified into a calendar that started a countdown from December 1st instead of the First Sunday (a moving holiday).
Who Invented the Advent Calendar?
We don’t have any concrete information about who invented the first-ever Advent calendar or even when exactly it was invented. What we do know is that the oldest known Advent calendar was made in 1851. It was a wooden construction, hand-painted with devotional images, one to mark each day of the countdown.
These wooden Advent calendars had little in common with modern Advent calendars and were strictly for devotional purposes. There was no jolly Christmas imagery and no treats hidden behind small doors. That would only come over half a century later, with the advance of the printed Advent calendar.
I hate to say this, but once again, we don’t exactly know who printed the first Advent calendar. I know it’s very annoying to hear, especially for an item barely a century old. One would think by the start of the 20th century; we’d be better at keeping records. But alas, the records do differ. According to one version, the first cardboard Advent calendar was printed in 1902 in Hamburg by a protestant bookshop owner; according to another, it was published in 1908 Germany by a man named Gerhard Lang (1881-1974).
Who really printed the first cardboard Advent calendar is likely a question that’ll go unanswered. Only, there’s a reason why the Austrian bookshop owner remains nameless, while Gerhard Lang’s name we know. He may not have printed the first Advent calendar, but he did give it the signature look it’s known for. He introduced the concept of hiding the Advent calendar images behind the little doors.
Gerhard Lang was inspired to add an element of surprise by his mother. When Gerhard was a child, his mother hid 24 cookies in small cardboard boxes (by other accounts, it was candy attached to a single cardboard square). Gerhard was given a treat each day until Christmas, turning the Advent countdown into a special occasion.
Going into the calendar mass-production business as an adult, he remembered this tradition. He proposed to his friend and business partner Reichhold to add a similar exciting element to the countdown to attract people’s attention.
Ironically enough, their Advent calendars didn’t include any sweet treats. It was the classic assortment of devotional images, only this time, each one was hidden behind a small door, and you didn’t know which biblical scene you’d be getting until you opened them on the date. Different enough to excite people but without any severe risks of offending religious sensibilities (remember, at the time Advent calendar was still about holy traditions).
Reichhold & Lang lasted until the 1930s, but with the war looming, printing became increasingly hard, and the company had to shut down. Maybe if they did add sweet treats, they would’ve lasted longer; who knows? They did, however, transform the Advent calendars forever: the tiny doors were here to stay.
Advent Calendar In-Between: From the 1930s to the 1950s
In the 1930s, shortly after Reichold & Lang shut down, several new players entered the scene, the largest of them Sankt Johannis Printing Company. They started mass-producing Advent calendars of their own, adding another unique element: instead of biblical pictures, they hid biblical verses behind closed doors. Anything to set you apart, I suppose.
As it were, the Advent calendar business seemed to be going along swimmingly - then the Nazis entered the scene.
The outbreak of World War II put a significant strain on Advent calendar printing. Firstly, cardboard became rationed, severely curtailing mass printing. Secondly, the Nazis didn’t appreciate colorful biblical imagery and swiftly prohibited printing calendars with images. Instead, they introduced their own Eau De Nazi Advent calendar, which was more of a propaganda pamphlet with lots of swastika and tank imagery.
Luckily, however unsavory, the Nazi pamphlet turned out to be a mere blip in the history of Advent calendars. By 1946 with the war officially over and cardboard rationing officially over, the Advent calendars got a new lease on life.
Stuttgartian publisher Richard Sellmer was primarily responsible for the renewed interest in Advent calendars. It wasn’t easy: Sellmer needed permission from US officials to start mass production, and while officially, paper and cardboard weren’t being rationed, there were still shortages due to the after-effects of the war. But by some miracle, Sellmer managed to slay the bureaucratic dragon and started printing a new type of Advent calendar: one with traditional winter town scenes. Very aptly, it was called “a little town.”
Sellmer didn’t stop there. Aside from being a competent publisher, it turned out that he was also an excellent advertiser. He managed to snag the most powerful person in the world at the time - the president of the United States - to act as a sort of brand ambassador for his calendars.
Sellmer set up a charity with Dwight D. Eisenhower and his family, pledging a part of his prospective earnings. In exchange, the president was photographed opening a Sellmer Advent calendar with his grandchildren, and the photo ran in several national newspapers. The calendar sales instantly skyrocketed, and Sellmer soon became known by the moniker the “General Secretary of Father Christmas.”
Richard Sellmer’s company, Sellmar-Verlag, is still in the business and one of the largest printers of Advent calendars in Germany. And yes, its modern Advent calendars do come with chocolates!
Who First Put Chocolate in an Advent Calendar?
Now that’s the real question! Most sources agree that it was the British chocolate giant Cadbury that started mass production of chocolate-filled Advent calendars, even if they can’t agree on an exact date. Some claim that it happened as early as 1958. Others disagree that while the first chocolate Advent calendar was indeed printed in 1958, we don’t exactly know if it was Cadbury to do it and that the first Advent calendar chocolate by Cadbury appeared as late as 1971.
A less popular theory is that smaller publishers placed chocolates in Advent calendars long before Cadbury came onto the scene, as early as the ‘30s and ‘40s. Their small-scale production simply didn’t attract enough attention to keep their names in the annals of history. Some even attribute the habit to Gerhard Lang or Richard Sellmer (which isn’t without reason). But regardless, as of right now, the most likely answer still seems to be Cadbury.
What Type of Treats Go Into Advent Calendars?
These days, it seems like anything and everything can go into an Advent calendar. When it comes to Advent calendar chocolate, the classic milk chocolates, often shaped into various holiday-themed images, seem to be a common choice. Tiny chocolate Santas, snowmen, teddy bears, wreaths, etc., hide behind tiny doors as figurines or images decorating classic bonbons.
Many manufacturers have cottoned onto the fact that the Advent calendar chocolate assortments are more for adults these days than for children. It’s increasingly common to encounter gourmet chocolate assortments like premium-quality Italian gianduja, authentic Spanish turron, or German marzipan painstakingly clad into classy boxes with minimal tasteful decorations instead of colorful and cheerful Christmas imagery. It’s pretty apparent that these assortments are targeted at adults, often to act as impressive gifts for other adults. What can we say? It certainly works.
Some brands simply use Advent calendars as an alternative seasonal package for the old classics that come with a built-in customer base. In contrast, others do come up with innovative seasonal flavors. But overall, the Advent calendar chocolate seems to be geared towards offering the buyers a risk-averse Bomboniere with a bit of festive flair. And that is precisely what most people want it to be.
Explore Yummy Bazaar’s Holiday Assortment for More Traditional Christmas Treats:
Yummy Bazaar hosts one of the largest online selections of gourmet holiday treats, with a wide variety of items from across the globe. Explore the Italian section for a wide assortment of gourmet panettone or pandoro, go to the Spanish section for authentic Christmas turron nougat candy or check out the German collection for high-quality marzipan, far too often overlooked during the Christmas celebrations. Or maybe you’d like to go a little original with your choice of Christmas gingerbread cookies? You’ll find an assortment from all over the world, from German lebkuchen to Swedish Pepperkakkor to French Nonnettes. You can get it all and more from the comfort of your couch! Spare a few minutes to stock the cart with your favorites, and we’ll take it from there, ensuring the goodies get delivered to your doorstep ASAP.
Winter Town Calendar Image Source: Sellmer-Adventskalendar