Although Advent calendars are named after a Christian holiday season and were historically used by religious families, they straddle the divide between religious and secular. Derived from the Latin word for arrival, Advent is the Christian season of prayer and fasting that starts in late November and runs for four Sundays, preparing for the birth of Jesus. Advent calendars, on the other hand, typically use sweets and gifts to count down the days of December until the bigger gifts of Christmas. Whether your family uses a traditional or more secular version, Advent calendars can be a great tool to develop a sense of hope, joy and love that any family can enjoy.
Advent calendars first became popular in the mid-19th century in Germany. Families marked chalk lines on the front door or lit 24 candles around a wreath to count the days of December. Inspired by the handmade calendars his mother made for him as a child by attaching 24 sweets to a piece of cardboard, Gerhard Lang produced the first mass-printed calendar in the early 1900s. It revealed a small, color religious picture every day. Advent calendars became popular all over Europe and spread to the U.S. in the 1940s and '50s.
Today, families can find calendars depicting religious imagery, Santa Claus, Christmas elves or even images taken by the Hubble Space telescope. Maxwell Ryan, CEO and founder of the website Apartment Therapy, has linked to dozens of DIY Advent calendars. He believes traditional models aren't as popular these days. Not only are they seen as "cheap" and "cheesy," but also they are not as interactive or appealing to modern kids. Instead, he thinks DIY Advent calendars are becoming more popular because they are more creative. They hide goodies in pockets, bags, boxes, drawers and other containers, not simply the paper doors found in more traditional models. Similarly, they are now made from nearly every material instead of just paper and cardboard.
"The design possibilities are really fun," Ryan says. "And I'm a big fan of DIY, particularly for this kind of thing. Anything you do yourself for your children, as simple as it may be, they will love more than something that is store bought." At its most basic, Ryan says an Advent calendar is a series of toy pockets in which small gifts can be placed. An easy Advent calendar can be built by "hanging a cord across a window or doorway and stringing the pouches across it. The child can reach up and grasp it, pluck it off." Alternatively, you can create an array of bags, boxes or wrapped items across a table or mantle.
Traditionally, Advent calendars offered sweets or pictures. Ryan says, "The thrill for children is in the moment of discovery, so food is great. For an older child, however, a book or some other gift might be better." Ryan cautions against giving 25 gifts. "Because Advent calendars are a series, it lends itself to giving someone pieces of a whole, like individual pieces of a game, almost like clues."
As is the case with many Christmas traditions, Ryan warns against focusing too much on toys or material goods. "If you give 24, 25 gifts, by the time Christmas comes around, what are you going to do? You have to undershoot." Instead, Ryan suggests focusing on "something small that has a moment of surprise to create a sense of delight. ... When you open up that door or that pouch, that moment of wonder and surprise is everything. That's what you want to create."
Advent calendars are an excellent way to create that sense of joy, hope and mystery of the holiday season. Moreover, it can be a wonderful tool to build a new family tradition. Ryan says, "Children really thrive when there is a strong sense of ritual and routine, and Advent calendars are a perfect opportunity for that."
Come together as a family to reveal the daily surprise of your Advent calendar at the same time, and in the same manner, to make the holiday more special.