The History of the Christmas Advent Calendar

With numbered "doors" counting down and marking each day throughout the festive month of December, the advent calendar has become a popular tradition in its own right, as it's a fun way to celebrate the season of goodwill. Although its origins are religious, non-religious people enjoy having an advent calendar too.

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History of advent calendars

Advent has been celebrated since the fourth century, according to historians. It's the four-week period which begins on the nearest Sunday to 30th November - the feast day of St Andrew the Apostle on the Christian calendar.

“Advent" is derived from the Latin word that means "coming". It used to be a time when people who were converting to Christianity prepared for their baptism, but it later became associated with the coming of Jesus Christ, in terms of his birth on 25th December.

The advent calendar begins on 1st December and marks the 24 days leading to Christmas Day. Strictly speaking, this isn't the exact period of advent, but they have always been known as advent calendars.

Originating in the mid-19th century, when German Protestants would light candles or make chalk marks on doors to count the days leading up to Christmas, this tradition evolved into the launch of the advent calendar.

Printed clocks

Early advent calendars were known as "printed clocks" to recognise the fact that opening the doors marked the passing of time. The first ones were printed in Hamburg in 1902 and were sold by the publisher, Friedrich Tümpler, in his evangelical bookstore, at a cost of 50 Pfennigs each.

In 1904, the Stuttgarter Zeitung newspaper gave away a Christmas calendar, called Im Lande des Christkinds, which translates as In the Land of the Christ Child.

Originally, the calendars didn’t have any doors to open, rather they consisted of two printed sheets. One page contained 24 pictures, which people could cut out. The other page contained 24 boxes, each of which had a poem printed inside.

Commercial success

Born in 1881, German businessman Gerhard Lang was the producer of the first commercially successful advent calendar in the early 1920s - it was also the first to have small doors. Inspired by a handmade calendar that his mother had given to him, his idea of the doors is the staple of every advent calendar today.

Lang's calendars were a massive success in Germany. During World War II, production had to stop due to a shortage of cardboard, but it was resumed after the war, with the main manufacturer being Richard Sellmar, of Stuttgart.

Sellmar obtained a permit to begin printing and selling them in the United States. His company, Sellmar-Verlag, is still a leading manufacturer, supplying millions of advent calendars every year to people in more than 30 countries.

The tradition of filling the calendars with chocolates began in the 1950s, when advent calendars started spreading around the world. President Dwight Eisenhower is credited with making them popular in America, after he was photographed opening them with his grandchildren.

Gregorian calendar

While we associate advent calendars with the passing of time every December, they might have been marking a different time of the year, had the Gregorian calendar not been introduced in the 16th century.

The calendar which everyone across Europe used previously was called the Julian calendar. It had been introduced by the Roman emperor Julius Caesar in 46 BC, but unfortunately, he had miscalculated the length of the solar year by eleven minutes.

Although this doesn't sound like a massive amount of time, by the 16th century, the calendar was out of sync with the seasons! This worried Pope Gregory XIII, because Easter fell at the wrong time of year. It was supposed to be observed on 21st March, but with every passing year, it was falling further away from the spring equinox.

In the years after Caesar introduced the Julian calendar, it had fallen short by around 17,600 minutes. This equated to 293 hours, or 12 days. As time went on, this was only going to get worse, as another eleven minutes would be lost every year!

Had it not been corrected, over the passing of time, the seasons would have eventually ended up completely out of sync with the weather and we may have found ourselves celebrating Christmas in the stifling heat of summer!

Pope Gregory was a forward-thinking man, who realised the importance of putting this right. In 1582, he introduced the Gregorian calendar, aimed at getting it back in sync with the seasons. Although it was carefully calculated, scientists have subsequently realised it's out of sync with the solar cycle by 26 seconds per year.

However, this is nowhere near as drastic as the Julian calendar's discrepancy. It means that by the year 4909, the Gregorian calendar will be one day ahead of the solar year.

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