Growing up, having an Advent calendar was a fun part of my family’s holiday celebrations. Opening up a little cardboard door or window each morning from December 1st added a nice sense of anticipation and a handy visual countdown to how many days were left until Christmas. Later, my own children invariably squabbled over who got to open the last door on Christmas Eve, and resented that I would only buy old-school versions with seasonal pictures rather than chocolate treats. Advent calendars have become increasingly popular in recent years — and not just for kids. There are adult and pet varieties, ones with beauty products, toys, food and more. This year I’m making my own, mining Library collections for resources. This can be a great family project for those who celebrate; this post will share tips and ideas to adapt.
Creating a calendar made me wonder about the history of Advent. There’s debate as to when and how it actually began, with claims for both the 5th and 6th centuries AD. In Christian tradition, Advent marks the coming celebration of the birth of Jesus. German customs have heavily influenced how many people observe the Advent period today. Evergreen Advent wreaths were an early way to celebrate the season, and by the 19th century, German wreaths featured a candle for each of the four Sundays before Christmas. Advent calendars soon followed, marking the days from December 1st to Christmas Eve. By the early 1900s lucky German children had many to choose from. In part, this was a result of German improvements and superiority in chromolithography, a multi-color printing process that advanced quickly in the 19th century. These new technological improvements made it possible to mass-produce brightly colored printed images much more cheaply than the previous hand-colored versions. One result was a wealth of commercial card and paper products specifically for children — including Advent calendars.
Advent calendars became more familiar in the U.S. after World War II. American GIs stationed in Germany sent them home, perhaps first experiencing them when sharing the Christmas holiday with local families, as described in this article from 1955. They were featured in the American press too. In 1954, a journalist wrote about German celebrations of Advent and her first experience of an Advent calendar. A 1953 column on holiday decorations mentioned “a three-dimensional cardboard Advent calendar from West Germany” showing “an old town bustling with Christmas activity” that’s sure to be a “season favorite”. A picture showed one that had “enchanted” two little boys, for whom opening the windows was the “highlight of each day”. Both writers felt they had to give a full description of the calendar’s appearance and function — a sign of how new they were to American audiences. By 1954, at least one charitable organization was using Advent calendars as a fundraising tool. A photograph of President Eisenhower’s young grandchildren posing with their National Epilepsy League calendar can only have added to the new holiday item’s profile and popularity. Advent calendars have been on an upswing ever since, which explains the range of choice available today.
Activity: Make Your Own
For those who celebrate and want to make an advent calendar, a quick online search turns up suggestions of all kinds. Some require significant crafting skills, but if you don’t have the required time or inclination there are many simpler options too. There’s no need to spend a great deal of time and trouble on materials either. Paper lunch bags, envelopes and little homemade paper boxes all dressed up with colorful pictures are perfect receptacles. Your creation can do double duty as a holiday decoration, as in the first picture above. I decided on a colorful, old-fashioned theme, but there are plenty of other options, such as winter sports, holiday food or a black and white version, to name a few. Whatever theme you decide on, there are bound to be pictures in the collections that you can use!
Once you’ve chosen a style, you’ll need images for each day from December 1st to 24th. The Prints and Photographs online catalog is your friend here, with thousands of seasonal pictures for you to choose from. Refine your search by looking specifically for photos, prints and drawings, using key words such as “winter,” “Santa,” “Christmas,” “reindeer”, etc. A selection of holiday images is available here, part of the Free to Use and Reuse sets. Check the Rare Books and Special Collections Division digitized children’s books holdings for suitable pictures too. Do make sure to check the Rights Advisory information attached to each image; if it says “No known restrictions on publication” you may print out and use it as you please without infringing copyright.
Not every day on your Advent calendar has to include a tangible or edible treat. You can add messages, plans for activities, and links to items in Library collections that you can enjoy together — a good idea if you want to make your Advent calendar a digital one to share with friends and families far away. Longer digitized books can be parceled up into sections to read on different days during the Advent period.
Classic seasonal stories to share include:
- Clement Moore’s famous poem A Visit from St. Nicholas
- The Nutcracker and the Mouse King also has gorgeous illustrations, a good source of pictures for calendar making
- Little Elephant’s Christmas is perfect for younger children
- Christmas Stories includes five seasonal tales
- Try acting out a play, like A Strike in Santa Land (don’t be put off by the title; it has a happy ending).
- In Tiny’s Christmas Fairy, a girl shares her toys with others
Whether you make or buy your Advent calendar this year, we hope your family enjoys opening it up each day — even if it there’s no chocolate!
With thanks to Mark Dimunation, Chief of Rare Books and Special Collections Division, for discussing Advent and explaining 19th century German expertise in chromolithography.