DEAR FATHER | Origin of Advent calendar goes back many centuries

Such a timely, good question, and one that I have wondered about myself.

Once, I stopped by a coffeehouse to enjoy coffee with a good book and saw that they were selling chocolate Advent calendars. To me, it made for a curious sight — a secular coffeehouse chain selling a seeming religious item.

The remote origins of this custom come from St. John of the Cross, the great Spanish Carmelite mystic. He carried statues of Mary and Joseph to the cells of brother Carmelites during Advent, commemorating Mary and Joseph's search for lodging in Bethlehem before our Savior's birth. Over time, this became a customary preparation for Christmas in Spain and influenced Advent traditions in their colonies.

The more proximate origins of the Advent calendar come from Lutherans residing in Germany around the beginning of the 19th century. Facing a rising emphasis on material preparations for Christmas, they counted down the 24 days before Christmas by making a line for each day with a piece of chalk on one of the walls of their house. Instead of chalk, some families used small candles or blocks to count down the days before Christmas and thereby remember the true reason behind the holy day.

By the mid 1850s, printed Advent calendars began to be produced. Gerhard Lang, who grew up with the custom in Germany, was the first to do this. Each day, his printed calendar featured a small door that opened, revealing a small picture. As the custom grew, different kinds of calendars were printed: some had a Christmas picture behind the doors, others had a Bible verse relating to Christmas printed behind each door. The practice of printing calendars continued until World War II, when it was halted due to a rationing of paper products.

After the war, Richard Sellmer picked up the practice of printing Advent calendars. His company became quite successful after President Dwight Eisenhower's grandchildren were featured in a photograph in a newspaper article with one of his Advent calendars. The company Sellmer began in 1946 is still operating today making Advent calendars.

So where did the coffeehouse get the idea of printing an Advent calendar filled with chocolate? This version of the Advent calendar was produced for the first time in 1958 and caught on quickly. To this day, many Advent calendars will have a sweet treat behind some or all the doors on their calendar.

As Christmas nears, we will be inundated with messages emphasizing the material part of Christmas. The Advent calendar remains, then, a good way to gather each day and remember the true reason for the hustle and bustle at this time of year.

This column appeared in a previous issue of the St. Louis Review.

Father Mayo is pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Warrenton.

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