Advent calendars, like so many British Christmas traditions, have their roots outside the UK.
They are an evolution of a practice found in Germany of counting down through the Christian festival of Advent towards Christmas. This was often done through the lighting of candles on each of Advent’s four Sundays. In the nineteenth century, a different form of this tradition emerged, with the days being chalked off or counted by hanging a picture on a wall, a practice recorded as early as 1851.
In the decade or so before the First World War, this led to the first commercial production of advent calendars in Germany, a sheet of different festive pictures, sometimes arranged as a clock. One early producer was allegedly inspired by memories of his mother making her own calendar with sweets or cookies for him to eat each day. In 1926, he brought out a calendar with chocolates. Another interwar development was doors that opened, revealing a festive picture beneath.
The four-Sunday Advent has a different number of days, according to when Christmas falls in the week, but early commercial calendars counted from 1 December, allowing them to be reused each year. This shift away from a strict religious character reflected the fact that in Germany the two final Sundays of Advent were already established as shopping days where laws around what was permissible on the Sabbath were ignored or relaxed.
It was not just the timing of Advent that was changing. The religious festival of Advent is a time of contemplation that looks forward to not just the birth of Christ but also his second coming, a time of judgement. That sense of reflection has been lost as Advent has become a time of excitement and anticipation.
The first advent calendars in the UK were gifts from Germany or Scandinavia or brought in by immigrants. In the wake of the Second World War, there were examples of them being sent to Britain as tokens of friendship from communities on the continent. By 1956, there were being commercially produced and advertised here. Their novelty is indicated by the explanations of what they actually were.
From 1956, the idea seems to have caught on and other producers, including charities, started selling advent calendars.
The 1950s was an important decade for the development of the British Christmas. It saw the first mass wave of working-class affluence and many parents wanted to give their children what they had never had. Spending on presents rose dramatically and traditions such as Christmas trees, which had previously been concentrated amongst the middle class, spread across the social scale.
The appeal of the Advent calendar was rooted in how it framed and shaped the anticipation of Christmas. Whereas Christmas day was the beginning of the religious festival, since the late Victorian period shopping and other preparations had shifted the secular focus to the weeks before the big day. The enjoyment that children derived from this anticipation was a significant reward and motive for parents’ spending and the Advent calendar simply gave some shape to a feeling already there.
Chocolate advent calendars were being made in the UK in the 1950s and 60s but do not seem to have caught on and right through into the 1980s the standard British calendar was a cardboard sheet of festive images with a picture of the nativity scene on the 24th, its last day. Cadbury’s did not manufacture its first chocolate calendar until 1971 and did not put them into continuous production until 1993. The fact that it was not until the 1990s that chocolate calendars become the norm is evidence of both how quickly new traditions can become established and how recent some of our Christmas practices actually are.
It is tempting to see the move to giving children a chocolate every day as another sign of the commercialisation of Christmas and ever growing levels of festive consumption. The emergence in of the past few years of luxurious calendars with toys and even food, drink and gifts aimed at adults has added to this sense and led to accusation that religious ideas are being ‘trampled on and colonised’.
Yet advent calendars of perfume or designer beer are not the norm and most in the shops are cheap and affordable. Moreover, the primary function of Advent calendars remains their countdown to the big day and children probably get more joy from seeing Christmas get closer than from the small chocolate. It is easy for cynical adults to forget the happiness that Christmas brings the young.
 Joe Perry, Christmas in Gemany: A Cultural History (2010), p. 166.
Martin Johnes is author of Christmas and the British: A Modern History (2016)