Advent is the four-week period beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, which happens to be the closest to St. Andrew’s Day which is observed on November 30 each year. Since the date of that Sunday varies from year to year, most commercially available Advent Calendars simply begin on December 1 and run through December 24.
The first known Advent Calendar was made in 1851. Prior to then families would mark the days of Advent with a chalk line or by lighting candles. Gerhard Lang is often cited as the first person to produce a printed Advent Calendar, probably in 1904 or so. Around that same time a German newspaper included an Advent Calendar as an insert as a gift to readers.
Lang was inspired by a creation of his mother. She had made an Advent Calendar for him when he was a boy, attaching a picture to a piece of cardboard for each day leading up to Christmas. Lang added little doors with the dates printed on them. To reveal each day’s picture the door would have to be opened.
Lang’s calendars became a commercial success and spread across much of Europe. Production was halted during World War II due to a cardboard shortage. After the war President Dwight Eisenhower was photographed with his grandchildren opening the doors of an Advent Calendar. The photo was featured in number of national newspapers and the Advent Calendar became a staple in America.
Many Advent Calendars now contain a piece of chocolate behind each door. The most expensive Advent Calendars ever produced were offered by Harrods in 2007. Each one was made of burr elm and walnut wood and had a piece of organic chocolate from Green & Black behind each door. The four-foot calendars sold for $50,000 a piece with proceeds benefiting cocoa farmers in Belize.
The largest Advent Calendar, according to Guinness World Records, was made in 2007 for the re-opening of the St. Pancras train station in London. It was nearly 233 feet tall and just over 75 feet wide. Since 2008 The Atlantic has posted the Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar online, featuring a different photo from the telescope each day.
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