To avoid being overwhelmed by the seasonal merchandising hustle, some parents use an Advent calendar to focus their families’ attention on the spiritual season leading to the celebration of Christ’s birth.
Advent, as early as the sixth century, was observed by some Christians in preparation for the Nativity and to look ahead to Jesus’ return. Eventually Advent was adopted by the Catholic Church and defined as the four weeks prior to Christmas, starting on the Sunday closest to St. Andrew’s Feast Day. This year the feast day and the start of Advent converge on Nov. 30.
Children use Advent calendars to count down the days to Christmas. Religious calendars of paper, cloth or wood—often portraying the Nativity–typically come with 24 little doors that a child opens, one each day, to find biblical verses or pictures that convey an aspect of Christmas. Other calendars have 24 small pockets that contain tiny Nativity figures or ornaments to affix to a stable or pine tree. And often there are sweet surprises of chocolate.
On a mid-November afternoon, Debbie Dubeau of Ladera Ranch bought a Nativity themed Advent calendar at Crusade Catholic Store in San Juan Capistrano that she planned to display in her office at Serra Catholic School, where she serves as Director of Parent Relations.
Dubeau, who is in her 50s, fondly recalls Advent calendars in her childhood home in Chicago’s suburbs. She said she and her husband continued the tradition during their first Christmas as newlyweds. This year Dubeau mailed Advent calendars to their two children in college. And she keeps another at home for herself, her husband and her mother, who lives with them.
Advent calendars encourage you “to take time out of every day to be prayerful and thoughtful and prepare your heart for Jesus,” Dubeau said.
The idea originated in Germany in the early 19th century, when families would draw a line in chalk on a door or light a candle or hang a religious picture on a wall to mark the days until Christmas. Gerhard Lang is widely considered to have first printed an Advent calendar to sell in 1908 that resembles today’s calendars.
Production of the calendars stopped in Germany during World War II because of a cardboard shortage but was begun again in 1946 by Richard Sellmer, a Stuttgart printer, who sold commercial calendars worldwide.
Retailers, both online and in stores, this year are offering calendars with a wide variety of themes, both religious and secular, and some are quite expensive.
A LEGO City Advent Calendar that sells for $40.35 on Amazon.com has toys with which children can populate a Christmas cityscape, including Santa, two policemen and a bandit absconding with presents.
One Pottery Barn calendar is a $179 wall-mounted tree with 24 woven wicker baskets for small gifts.
Still, Joanne Peters, owner of Catholic Books and Gifts in Fountain Valley, said she finds that the most popular Advent calendars are simply made, feature the Nativity scene and sell for less than $2.
Katie Dawson, Director of Parish Faith Formation for the Diocese of Orange, questioned the sense of buying elaborate calendars filled with pre-Christmas gifts.
“Parents think they are doing something good for their children but they would be better off focusing their children on someone else’s needs rather than their own wants,” she said.
“The Advent calendar is a good tool as long as it is clearly anchored in the real meaning of the season of Advent, which is waiting and anticipating,” she added.