On December 1 every year, children, adults, and even pets in first-world countries around the world start opening their Advent calendars. A few decades ago, these were merely large greeting cards featuring perforated squares that one opened to reveal images from the story of Christ’s birth, such as a donkey, an angel, or a baby in a manger.
Today, advent calendars contain chocolate, perfume, dog treats, and even jewelry. Businesses are selling more of these products every year, and marketers are getting creative. Why is there such an obsession with advent calendars?
The Consumer Perspective
Advent calendars are fun. They contain an element of mystery. The consumer recognizes a theme (chocolate, soap, beer) but is unsure exactly what is behind each door or inside every box.
One business owner told journalist Tara Deschamps that her Advent product was created around the idea that there should be something for everyone, regardless of their beliefs.
Caitlin McDowell of Geek Studio commented, “I wanted to make something that wasn’t specifically Christmas themed because I have a lot of customers that are nondenominational or another religion, so I wanted it to be generic.”
Every day there is something small to lift a person’s spirit, which is a practical highlight of this Christmas staple. “Patterns of increased rates of depression during the holidays have been documented by doctors and mental health professionals for years.”
Causes include interpersonal issues, painful associations from the past, and “the pressure of how many responsibilities someone has” (Ibid.). Advent products provide a spark of uncomplicated pleasure.
They also satisfy our impatience. No one likes waiting, and with the commercial Christmas season in full swing by mid-November or earlier, the wait for December 25 seems longer than ever. Receiving a small gift each day in December satiates some of that impatience.
The Vendor Perspective
Marketing companies and businesses have become increasingly inventive to meet the demand and fulfill the potential embedded in the advent structure. Advent calendars provide an opportunity for someone to engage with a new product and, potentially, to buy the full-sized version.
Professor Steve Tissenbaum of Ryerson University explains that “even if the person doesn’t buy the product [in] that particular advent box, they have created a relationship with that consumer. They are spending time with my brand.” Christmas provides a chance for some clever marketing.
Mark-ups can be enormous thanks to the novelty format. Advent calendars are packaged in a way that supplies a small amount of product inside a large amount of packaging.
The calendar is often quite large, giving the impression that the gift (chocolate, whiskey) will also be large; however, the companies making these items only have to supply a taster, not a serving.
The Historical Background
Scott James explains that the Advent calendar was first introduced in Germany. Here, mid-nineteenth century families “started counting the days until Christmas by tallying chalk marks on a door or wall.
Variations of the countdown included lighting a candle or hanging a religious picture for each day leading up to Christmas Eve.”
Gerhard Lang, the inventor of the modern Advent Calendar, grew up in one of numerous German families who enjoyed some sort of homemade calendar prior to the introduction of simple printed Advent calendars, “Behind each door, a devotional picture or Bible verse was hidden. With this innovation, Lang is considered the father of the modern Advent calendar.”
“The Advent calendar is an ever-present part of the Christmas season. Rooted in a tradition that spans centuries of church history, […] Advent calendars carry an underlying spiritual message of anticipation and hope. By helping us remember and reflect on the coming of Jesus Christ, Advent calendars can be a valuable aid for Christian families.”
Christian families use them to teach their children about Jesus, making him relatable. After all, he was also a child once.
During this time, the calendar affords parents an opportunity to teach their children to emulate certain attributes of Jesus, such as patience and kindness, thinking more highly of one’s brother than of one’s self.
Simply allowing one’s sibling to take his or her turn at the calendar without grumbling is a small victory over sin.
What Is Advent?
Advent means “the fact of an event happening, an invention being made, or a person arriving.” Christ’s birth was an anticipated arrival and an event, a new thing: not an invention but a fulfillment.
God came down as promised when Isaiah prophesied, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).
The Christian church associates “Advent” with the coming of Christ, first as an infant and later when he will return for his Bride — the church. His life ushered in a new religion, which united Jews and Gentiles under one God and provided the gift of salvation by grace alone.
Scott James wrote that “Advent is a part of the liturgical year, or church calendar, which dates back over 1,500 years and is observed in many Christian traditions. Even in traditions that do not practice the church calendar, Advent is often observed as a part of the Christmas season.”
This season begins on the fourth Sunday before December 25 and is marked by the lighting of a candle along with recitations of Luke 1 and 2. Here we find an account of how Mary became pregnant, how the shepherds heard about Jesus, and the modest circumstances of his birth.
The Purpose of Advent
Christians prepare their hearts to meet with Jesus during the Advent season. “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:7).
Believers are encouraged to remember the importance of preparing for his second coming. “The season of Advent is marked by themes of self-reflection, anticipation, hope, and, ultimately, joyful celebration of the Savior’s coming” (Scott James).
A believer needs reminding of this: Christ could have stayed on his throne, but he allowed himself to be made small and helpless for our sake.
The word “humble” means “to lower in condition, importance, or dignity; abase; to destroy the independence, power, or will of” Jesus lowered himself, made himself an ordinary man, gave up his dignity, and obeyed the Father instead of doing what he wanted (Luke 22:42).
Believers also pray for hard hearts to be humbled during this season. Some people only go to church or really think about Christ during the holidays, which lends gravity to those four weeks.
Believers hope to inspire deep curiosity in the heart of a believer who hears this message: that the Messiah, “being found in human form, […] humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8) will inspire deep curiosity about the love of Jesus. Perhaps Advent will lead to a new thing — belief in Christ for salvation.
Advent Calendars and the Kingdom of God
Scott James observed that Advent calendars “help families start an edifying Advent tradition.” They provide a tool for starting the conversation about who Christ is and what this tradition is about.
This goes for sharing the gospel with non-believers too. Advent calendars provide common ground for meaningful conversations about Christmas.