During the season of Advent in about 1880 or so, the mother of Gerhard Lang made her young son a cardboard calendar featuring twenty-four sweets, one per day, with which to mark off the time until Christmas. She surely wasn’t the only mother to do something like this for her child.
Advent was introduced as a four-week (give or take) period of preparation leading up to Christmas by Pope Gregory I in the early seventh century. It took a while to catch on, but by the nineteenth century, German families in particular were finding clever ways to keep track of the days. Some used tear-away pages or tally marks on doorframes. Others lit candles or placed markers on ladder rungs.
But it was Gerhard Lang who is generally given credit for popularizing the advent calendar style most people use today, as a direct result of the creativity of his mother and his resulting magical childhood. When Gerhard grew up and became a printer, he remembered the calendar his mother had made for him and began mass producing a twenty-five-day calendar with doors to be opened each day leading up to Christmas in the month of December. Behind each door was a picture or Bible verse.
Then in 1958, Cadbury began producing Advent calendars with twenty-four chocolate treats to be enjoyed one at a time from December first to somewhere around December fourth, which is about as long as any chocolate Advent calendar has ever lasted for me.
But like Gerhard Lang, I had a pretty magical childhood. Not only did my dad usually purchase an inexpensive chocolate Advent calendar for me and for each of my siblings from the local high school German club’s annual fundraiser, but my mom also made a calendar for the family that we took turns opening.
Behind each door of the homemade version, my mom would write tasks we needed to do to get ready for Christmas. This included things like decorating the Christmas tree, making Christmas cards, or baking Christmas cookies. Sometimes our tasks were service projects for others or chores that needed to be done before Santa could come. Other times we found them more fun, like driving to look at Christmas lights or visiting with the big jolly elf himself. Seriously, my childhood was magical.
And this year, in my hometown, the season has gotten even a little bit more magical. A few months ago, one of my favorite former teachers (who gets credit for my appreciation of The Great Gatsby) was in the town square and happened to notice something. He looked up at a tall brick Farmer’s Bank building that has stood guard over the old downtown for more than a century and counted the windows. On one side, there are exactly twenty-four of them.
An idea was born. The teacher solicited some help from around town (including the artist who designs my book covers) and approached the bank to ask if they might make what they believed would be the world’s tallest Advent calendar. The answer was an enthusiastic yes.
And that’s how Christmas in my corner of the world became a little more magical.