In German homes where there are children, and in many where there are none, December 1st is the day another of Germany's Christmas traditions begins. An Advent Calendar, perhaps a Nativity or Christmas snow scene with numbered doors, will be opened each day during the countdown until Christmas Eve, Heiligabend Holy Evening, the end of Advent. Although occasionally there is also one extra flap for Christmas day.
Behind each of these doors lie small chocolate angels, stars or snowmen, sweets, or other little surprises, while for the 'more mature' tastes there might be chocolate truffles or liqueurs.
Several legends exist about their origins but it's thought the first Advent Calendars were in 19th Century Germany's Protestant region, where devout families marked each day of December until "Heiligabend" with a chalk line drawn onto a door or wall.
Which is rather a long way from some 1.75 meter high Advent calendars sold these days, with their twenty four doors opening onto everything from designer sunglasses to photos of 8.5 meter speedboats that, for obvious reasons, do not fit.
By the late 1800's the chalk lines had developed into a painted poster or card with twenty four windows opening onto a biblical verse or religious scene, while families had also begun creating their own calendars.
However the first mass printed Advent Calendar is thought to have been one with tiny colored pictures that could be stuck each day onto a cardboard base, which was produced in 1908 Munich by Gerhard Lang, a pastor's son born in Maulbronn, a village in Southern Germany's Black Forest.
During Gerhard's childhood his mother had made him calendars with twenty four small boxes attached to a board, each carrying a sweet biscuit or small candle to mark the days to Christmas Eve, and he developed this idea beginning a new and popular Advent tradition in Germany.
There were thirty different styles of calendar with little doors or small attached bags, containing pictures of the nativity, bible extracts or candy.
World War II brought an end to the custom, cardboard was rationed and the celebration of advent was not followed as it had been. Gerhard Lang's business closed and it was not until 1946 that a commercial tradition was restarted in the US zone of post war Germany by Richard Sellmer, who worked in the living room of his Stuttgart home.
President Eisenhower bought some calendars for his grandchildren in the early 1950's when the idea was made part of charitable business cooperation in the USA, while the custom itself regained popularity throughout Germany and began to spread worldwide. With chocolates or sweets being added behind the calendar windows by the end of the 1950's.
Many German towns feature a Walking Advent Calendar where one painted and themed window on individual buildings is illuminated each day, until all twenty four decorate the dark streets, while in other towns and cities the Town Hall itself becomes an Advent calendar when each evening another window decorated by school children or artists is revealed.
Gengenbach, a beautiful medieval town of half timbered buildings and cobbled streets in southwest Germany's Black Forest, has perhaps the largest of these giant Advent calendars featured on twenty four of its pink baroque Town Hall's front windows.
While on the other side of the country in Leipzig, Saxony, a two by three meter (6.1/2 x 10 feet) three-dimensional window, part of the largest freestanding Advent calendar in the world, opens each evening from December 1st until Christmas.
But almost certainly the most treasured of the Advent calendars are the ones that are brought out from the Christmas decoration box and filled with small surprises each year.
Handmade designs created while children are small, and most often with their help, handed down through the generations or bought from a Weihnachtsmarkt, a Christmas market, and treasured for their memories, they contribute to the feeling of tradition, continuation and charm that is a German Christmas.
Have a wonderful "Adventszeit".
Wooden Advent Calendar from Weihnachtsmarkt - Adventskalender am Rathaus von Gengenbach, the largest Advent calendar in the world, Alt Rathaus, old Town Hall in Gengenbach, in the Black Forest, Baden-Wuerttemberg, photographer Dieter Wissing, via Kultur-und Tourismus GmbH stadt-gengenbach.de - Crafted Advent Calendar, made and photographed by Andrea Schaufler – Creative Commons via de.Wikipedia
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For young and old, to bring the atmosphere of a Frohliche Weihnachten both for those who have experienced one and those who would like to. Filled with Songs, Traditions and Stories, this German Book & Audio CD Edition has easy to follow translations throughout
Here is a beautiful Advent Calender to bring out every year and help count those days to Christmas. By Eric Carle, of 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar' fame, it is the enchanting 'Dream Snow Pop-Up Advent Calendar'