Although we now associate Advent (and advent calendars) with Christmas and treats, Advent was first celebrated by monks in late 5th Century France, fasting in the run up to Christmas.
After a few twists and turns, Advent is now celebrated in very different ways. It’s been commercialised. There are advent calendars costing over $1m! And, thanks in no small part to President Eisenhower, a huge number of Advent calendars contain chocolate…
If you’d like to know about more figgy puddings and advent calendars, please read on!
History of Advent
Advent’s origins are opaque. Even Wikipedia seems stumped; citing various scholars with its assertation that “[it is] impossible to claim with confidence a credible explanation of the origin of Advent”.
Nonetheless, Wikipedia (and many other Church historians), suggest Advent fasts started in 5th Century France when Bishop Perpetuus directed his monks to fast an additional three times per week from St Martin’s Day (11th November) until Christmas. Various permutations of these fasts developed, extending out beyond monks and priests to everyday people too (Advent fasting is recorded in the court of Charlemagne in the 9th century). And, alongside fasting at Advent various ceremonies, prayers and liturgical traditions emerged to celebrate both the coming of Christ in human flesh and his second coming (the Latin word ‘adventus’ is a translation of the Greek ‘parousia’; a word used for both of these ideas).
While the practise of fasting during advent faded away in Catholic (and Protestant) Europe, it has continued in, for example, the Greek Orthodox church (although the fasting here is from all animal based foods and drinks; fish, wine and chocolate are permitted). At the same time, Advent’s liturgical traditions and prayers have continued along with a few other customs (in particular advent wreaths).
But it wasn’t until the 20th Century that the idea of ‘advent calendars‘ appeared.
…And Advent Calendars
During the 19th century, German Protestants began to mark off the days to Christmas by burning a candle or marking walls and doors with a chalk line. Then, in 1908, Gerhard Lang came up with the idea of counting down to Christmas by attaching 24 little sweets to cardboard coloured squares. Soon after he added little doors. And sales went literally through the roof.
However, this practise came to an abrupt halt in World War 2, where the Germans forbade the printing and making of such “frivolities”. After the war, Richard Sellmar, despite paper shortages and rationing, managed to obtain a permit from US officials to begin printing and selling advent calendars in West Germany. Fast forward 75 years later to today and the company he set up, Sellmar-Verlag, has built a hugely successful domestic and international business around advent calendars.
During the 1950s various companies experimented with adding chocolates to these advent calendars. And they hit “influencer gold” when President Eisenhower was photographed with his grandchildren opening a chocolate advent calendar. A new tradition was born. And it’s not stopped!
Figgy pudding, and ‘stir up Sunday’ (the Sunday before Advent starts, when tradition has it that a figgy pudding should first be made), go back far, far earlier. Indeed, there are claims that figgy pudding’s antecedents were being enjoyed in Britain as early as Roman times.
Historians often credit Dickens’ Mrs Cratchit in ‘A Christmas Carol’ for single-handedly popularising the idea of figgy and Christmas pudding. And then carol singers got in on the act: “We wish you a Merry Christmas” has two whole verses about demanding figgy Pudding at Christmas.
Other figgy pudding, advent calendar facts, figures, and curiosities:
Despite figgy pudding’s history stretching back to Roman times (and possibly even earlier; to the druids), it’s had a touch-and-go history. Oliver Cromwell, after beheading Charles I, banned figgy pudding in 1647 (along with carol singing, yuletide logs, and many of the other fun bits of Christmas celebrations). And it wasn’t until the monarchy was restored, that figgy and Christmas puddings made a come back. By the turn of the 18th century the German born George I was so enamoured by Christmas pudding that he acquired the nickname of “The Pudding King”. Since then the British tradition of Christmas pudding has continued to grow, and it’s estimated that over 25 million Christmas or figgy puddings will be consumed in the UK this year (2021).
Advent calendars, despite having a shorter history, have also been increasingly commercialised. There are now advent calendars containing everything from gin, whisky, coffee packs, cosmetics, even sex toys!
And almost every year some new attempt to enter the Guinness Book of Records with an advent calendar. Here are just a few:
- The world’s largest advent calendar was built in 2007 at St. Pancras station in London. It was over 200 feet high and 75 feet wide and built to commemorate the station’s refurbishment.
- In the same year (2007) Harrods created a Christmas-tree-shaped carved wooden advent calendar which cost over £30,000 to claim a spot for the most expensive advent calendar.
- Since then prices have inflated even further: Porsche has a $1m calendar made from brushed aluminium that includes a Porsche Design P’6910 Indicator watch in rose gold, an individually customisable Porsche Design kitchen, and a custom-made motor yacht, also designed by Porsche’s studio in Austria. The added extras also include a pair of 18-carat gold sunglasses, a pair of Porsche designed cufflinks, and a pair of super expensive trainers.
- In 2012, Lego built the world’s largest LEGO Advent Calendar in Covent Garden, London using over 600,000 LEGO bricks in 30 different colours. It took them (and a master Lego builder) over 7 weeks to build.
- According to the Guinness Book of Records, Kevin Strahle holds the record for the fastest time to consume a chocolate advent calendar, taking 1 minute 27.84 seconds.
We strongly recommend that you do NOT try to break Kevin’s record with any of Zotter’s or Standouts’ craft chocolate advent calendars!