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6 Wild and Wacky Takes on the Advent Calendar

meerkat advent calendar
Meerkats inspect a Christmas gift and an Advent calendar filled with mealworms they were given by their keepers in their enclosure at the zoo in Hanover, northern Germany, on Dec. 19, 2017. PHILIPP VON DITFURTH/DPA/AFP via Getty Images

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Christmas Day is a highly anticipated event every year, and for many the Advent calendar is the ultimate countdown tool. Generally outfitted with 24 numerically marked "windows," which can be popped open to reveal a prize, picture or words of scripture, Advent calendars have exploded in popularity in recent years. So, where did they come from and where are they going?

What Is Advent?

The word "Advent" (from the Latin word Adventus) means "coming." Originally, there wasn't much of a connection between Advent and Christmas. The period of Advent was started in the fifth century as a six-week time of fasting, tied to the imminent baptism of new Christians on the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6. That feast celebrates, among other things, the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. Sixth-century Romans revised Advent to be a time of focusing on the "second coming of Christ." (Christians believe Jesus will return to Earth at the end of time.)

In the Middle Ages, the emphasis of Advent changed yet again, to a period of penance and preparation for the "first coming" (or birth) of Jesus Christ before the feasting of Christmas Day, rather like the period of Lent before Easter.

alf-timbered house in Germany is a giant Advent calendar
This half-timbered house in Germany is a giant Advent calendar. Each day, one of the 24 windows will be opened until Christmas Eve and a new Christmas motif will be unveiled.
Harald Tittel/picture alliance via Getty Images

When Is Advent?

Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, which means the date can change each year. It can start as early as Nov. 27 and as late as Dec. 3. Liturgical churches will light a special candle each week during Advent and have special Bible readings. Families may make an Advent wreath or use an Advent calendar to mark the days.

History of the Advent Calendar

While the celebration of Advent is old, the associated calendars are a relatively new custom invented sometime in the 19th century. At first, these calendars were little more than a chalk line representing every day in December leading up to Christmas Eve, often on the back of a door. The first special Advent calendar was either produced by a Protestant bookstore owner in 1902, or else in the late 19th century by the mother of a German named Gerhard Lang. Lang's mother stuck 24 sweets on a square of cardboard, one for her young son to eat each day before Christmas.

As an adult, Lang opened a printing office and produced a calendar similar to the one his mother had made for him, with a colored picture for each day of the month. A few years later, he hit on the idea of adding 24 little "doors" that hid the picture for each day, giving the calendar an air of surprise.

In the 1930s, due to cardboard rationing, Lang had to fold his business. However, after the end of World War II, other companies started making their own Advent calendars. The first one filled with tiny chocolates debuted in 1958, courtesy of Cadbury. Traditionally, the calendar didn't have a "door" for Christmas Day, but some newer ones have added a 25th door so the consumer has something to look forward to on Dec. 25.

Modern Riffs on the Advent Calendar

Something about those tiny doors opening to reveal a secret or a treat has made marketers adapt the Advent calendar to some very commercial purposes. Here are a few of the hundreds out there:

Macy's Wine Advent Calendar: Need a little nip to get you through the holidays? Drop $140 for this calendar featuring a tiny bottle of vino for every day leading up to Christmas. If wine isn't your thing, don't worry. There's a calendar out there featuring just about every type of alcohol you can imagine, including tequila. That's one way to stay merry and bright.

Dr. Barbara Sturm Advent Calendar (Beauty Products): Got $500 burning a hole in your pocket? Spend it on this calendar featuring sample sizes of high-end beauty products. Hopefully it'll keep skin smooth and young-looking throughout the cold winter months.

A Catvent Calendar: Fluffy might not know who Jesus is, but she can still celebrate his birthday. Trader Joe's launched an Advent calendar for dogs in 2018, and the item was so popular that the cat version was added in 2019. Each of the 25 windows is stuffed with a treat like dried seaweed or antibiotic-free salmon that's sure to make your kitty purr. Plus, it's only $5.99 (if you can find one — they sell like hotcakes).

Jerky Advent Calendar: You can have a "Meaty Christmas" with this collection of jerky made from beef, elk, deer, wild boar and even gator. As the manufacturers of this carnivore's delight say, "'Tis the season for seasoned meat!" $70.

Lego Star Wars Advent Calendar: Lego has been in the Advent calendar business for years, but this version lets kids see one their favorite "Star Wars" characters, vehicles or models each day, for $29.99.

Tiffany Advent Calendar: When money is no object, why not spend $112,000 on a Tiffany Advent Calendar? Each shelf in the big blue box (which will be assembled on arrival) has a bit of gold jewelry or a sterling silver knick-knack inside. Tiffany says only four of these will be sold.

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