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7 December 2009
Advent calendars as cultural artifact

Like many Christmas traditions, the 24-day Advent calendar is a surprisingly recent innovation. Though countdowns-to-Christmas existed before, especially (saith Wikipedia) among German Lutherans, the first known Advent calendar with little surprise-containing windows to be opened for each day dates to 1851; mass-produced versions only arrived in the first year of the twentieth century.

Advent itself has been formally observed by Christians since at least the fourth century, though for most of its history it was a period of Lent-grade fasting and penitence—not exactly the thing for candy-a-day datekeepers. But the Reformation happened, rules and meanings slowly relaxed, and Advent became more and more a period of waiting in the hopeful, expectant, sense. Today Advent calendars can seem old-fashioned, a nod to an earlier, simpler version of Christmas, more liturgical and more ethnic, but as with so many symbols of the season they’re being ever reimagined and recreated—see, for instance, my favorite current countdown, The Big Picture’s annual Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar. So this week, the second of Advent, we ask: what do Advent calendars tell us about our culture, about the season, about their creators, about ourselves?

—Nate Barksdale

1. What do Advent calendars assume about the way the world is?

I think it’s a great tradition that has been kept alive - the idea of anticipation, preparation, waiting. Advent calendars are a tangible way to keep the Christ in Christmas throughout the month preceding.


Advent calendars assume that the way we organize time is in days.

Philip Tallon
2. What do Advent calendars assume about the way the world should be?

They presume that the Christmas season is bigger than just one day - that it deserves to be savored over time.

3. What do Advent calendars make possible?

Structured waiting.  A month can be difficult to count down consistently, this makes that countdown possible.

Philip Tallon
4. What do Advent calendars make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

They make it impossible for me to go a day without opening the next door with my kids, who want the candy (and to a lesser extent, the advent story we have for that day).

Philip Tallon
5. What new culture is created in response?