Advent, in contrast, is a lively, festive time in Germany. This has a lot to do with the Christmas markets that crop up all over the country, and the crowds that merrily mill around outside, drinking Glühwein and eating roasted nuts and all manner of Christmas specialties… you can tell I love it, can’t you? I've actually decided that I live an ideal holiday life by being able to enjoy the whole Advent season in Germany, soaking in the wonderful atmosphere, and then flying off to see my family, fully primed to enjoy the holiday.
One new tradition that I have semi-adopted is the Advent calendar (I did it last year, but somehow this year I lost track of time and neglected to get one. Kind of like how I keep telling myself everyday that I should get a Christmas tree, and yet every time I am anywhere near a place where one could be bought, I forget entirely about the task). Anyway, despite my lackluster semi-observance of the Advent calendar tradition, I think it is a sweet idea, and I decided to learn a bit about the origins of the practice.
So it turns out that Advent calendars originated in Germany in the early 1800s, although they have now found their way into many other cultures around the world. In fact, Munich is actually the epicenter/birthplace of today’s Advent calendar, as a Munich company (Reichhold & Lang) was the first to print commercial cardboard calendars with the little doors that could be opened each day. In Germany, all children grow up with Advent calendars. I think most Americans know what an Advent calendar is – maybe we had an enterprising teacher who thought it would be fun to introduce her class to the tradition – but it certainly is not a widespread tradition. In short, today’s Advent calendars are usually some sort of cardboard box decorated with a winter scene and 24 little windows that are to be opened – one per day – to reveal pictures, small toys, or little treats like chocolates (or for the very religious, perhaps religious messages in keeping with the idea of marking the time leading to Christmas with a daily reminder to prepare with penance and hope for the coming of Jesus. Though, to complicate things a bit, contrary to what one might assume, the first commercial Advent calendars actually were not religious in nature- Advent calendars with Bible verses instead of pictures behind the doors were introduced later). In Germany today, it’s mostly a secular practice. Generic calendars are produced in bulk by the many European chocolate companies (e.g. Lindt, Milka) and can be found in every grocery store. More intricate, handmade calendars can also be found in several shops. There’s really no limit as to what can go into an Advent calendar; I saw a beer calendar last week at Karstadt, with a different bottle of beer for every day leading up to Christmas. The picture above shows my flatmate's Advent calendar this year, which is a decorative musical canister filled with recipes. A lot of people also make their own calendars - it's a fun, crafty project for the season and an expression of love for whomever is the recipient of such calendar.