Like many others aspects of modern Christmas practices, the Advent calendar is of German origin. From the early nineteenth century, at the latest, German Protestants began to mark the days of Advent either by burning a candle for the day or, more simply, marking walls or doors with a line of chalk each day. A new practice of hanging a devotional image every day ultimately led to the creation of the first known handmade, wooden, Advent calendar in 1851. Sometime in the early twentieth century (either 1902 or 1908 depending on who you believe) the first printed calendars appeared, followed by Gerhard Lang’s innovation of adding small doors in the 1920s; he is thus often seen as the creator of the modern calendar. Others added short bible verses behind the doors alongside the traditional picture from the 1930s. Lang’s business closed shortly before the outbreak of war; subsequently cardboard was rationed and with a Nazi ban on the printing of calendars with images, the calendars disappeared and might have done for ever. But after the war ended Richard Sellmar of Stuttgart almost miraculously (considering the paper shortages) obtained a permit from the US officials to begin printing and selling them again. His company Sellmar-Verlag, this year celebrating its 70th anniversary, remains one of the most important producers of such calendars. Calendars filled with chocolate began to appear from the late 1950s around the time that they also began to spread around the world. Eisenhower is sometimes credited with the American popularisation of them having been photographed while President opening them with his grandchildren. Today they are a global phenomenon, even seeing a boost in popularity in recent years but at their heart they retain the essence of counting down the days to Weihnachten that began with those simple chalk scratches.
By Alex Wakelam