The Advent calendar is always part of the Christmas season. Rooted in a tradition that covers centuries of church history, the current version of the Advent calendar has existed since the 19th century. Advent calendars carry a fundamental spiritual message of hope and anticipation, emerging from a Protestant Christian context. By helping us reflect and remember the coming of Jesus Christ, Advent calendars can be an appreciated tool for Christian families.
What is Advent?
“Advent” comes from the Latin word “adventus,” meaning “coming” or “arriving.” Advent is the time of year when we celebrate Jesus Christ’s birth. Along with Lent, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost, the Advent season is part of the liturgical year or the church calendar dating back over 1,500 years and is observed in numerous Christian traditions. Even in traditions that don’t practice the church calendar, Advent is typically observed as part of the Christmas season.
Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, leading up to the festivities of December 25th. It’s intended to be a time when we prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus. Advent season is marked by themes of anticipation, self-reflection, hope, and the joyful celebration of the Savior’s arrival. These themes carry a double meaning, first molding our remembrance of Jesus’ birth, then encouraging us as we await His return.
The Advent calendar’s history.
Among the numerous traditions that have emerged to accompany the Advent season over the years, like the Jesse tree and a wreath with candles, one of the most popular and simplest is the Advent calendar. Instead of closely following the four-week Advent period, which can start any time from November 27th to December 3rd, an Advent calendar usually starts on December 1st and counts down the days until Christmas. Now, Advent calendars come in many forms, but the tradition started when mid-19th century German families started counting down the days until Christmas by tallying chalk marks on a wall or door.
Variations of the countdown included hanging a religious image for each day leading up to Christmas Eve or lighting a candle. Some families started making homemade calendars to complement their countdown. By the early 1900s, some newspapers and publishing companies started producing simple printed calendars. Advent calendars’ popularity spread with the help of German printer Gerhard Lang. Having grown up with a homemade Advent calendar, Lang started designing cardboard Advent calendars around the turn of the century and in the 1920s, he came up with the idea of cutting out small doors that could be opened each day.
Behind each door, a Bible verse or devotional picture was hidden. With this idea, Lang is considered the father of the modern Advent calendar. During World War II, paper rationing stopped the production of Advent calendars for some time. However, when the war ended, a few printing companies revived the tradition, and the calendars started to catch on once again. Their popularity in America increased when photos of President Dwight Eisenhower opening an Advent calendar with his grandchildren started circulating in the 1950s. By then, many calendars started including small gifts, like a small toy or chocolate, behind each door. Since then, the Advent calendar’s popularity has continued to increase, crossing over into non-religious contexts.
The meaning of the Advent calendar.
Many outside of the Christian tradition enjoy their yearly countdown calendar and its hidden treats, but the meaning behind the Advent calendar remains ingrained in religious themes. Observing the days of Advent serves as a time of spiritual preparation and reflection and is more than just a countdown. Advent is a time of waiting, calling to mind the anticipation and longing of God’s people who, for years, awaited the coming Messiah. Counting down the days of Advent helps us consider what it must’ve been like waiting for the promised Messiah, generation after generation.
It also allows us to consider why we needed a Savior to come in the first place, our sins, and also to remember God’s faithfulness to us. On our side of the cross, we understand that Israel’s longing season of expectation ended with the birth of Jesus Christ. Similarly, our yearly Advent season concludes with the celebration of Christmas, but first, we go through a season where we prepare for the feast. In addition to celebrating God’s faithfulness in the past, keeping Advent also helps us look to the future with hopeful anticipation. It puts us in the habit of waiting and watching, which is beneficial because Christians still live in a state of anticipation. We’re waiting for Jesus’ return. By looking back to His first Advent, we prepare ourselves to live in joyful anticipation of His second Advent. By holding these themes in our hearts, something as straightforward as an Advent calendar can help prepare our hearts to commemorate the gift of Jesus.
Using an Advent calendar with your family.
There are numerous unique styles of Advent calendars. Some play to the holiday season’s more generic and secularized aspects, while others are overtly Christian. Using a nativity-themes Advent calendar is a remarkable choice for families who want to keep their focus on Jesus during the Christmas season. Other calendars highlight biblical stories that share the history of God’s people leading up to Jesus Christ. The spiritual focus of such Advent calendars is built into the countdown, typically in the form of short devotionals supplementing the calendar. These calendars are an easy way to help families start an educational Advent tradition.
Christian-themed Advent calendars can be a valuable tool, but many families choose to focus on Christ with a calendar that doesn’t have an overtly religious theme or design. These calendars assist with the countdown but leave it to the parents to engage their family intentionally with an Advent-themed devotional. Whether it’s a cardboard display filled with chocolate treats or a LEGO countdown kit, the Advent calendar itself is an essential lesson in building expectations and can be a reason to gather the family together to create a context for spiritual discussions.