Author Mark Richards

It is December 1st on Friday – time to open the first window on your advent calendars. But is this simple part of the run-up to Christmas getting out of hand? Are we spending too much on Christmas in general and advent calendars in particular?

My wife and I were having a discussion last night. A simple question. At what age do you become too old for an advent calendar? Well, clearly not at 24 or 22 as our two eldest children sent texts within 30 minutes of each other. December 1st on Friday, Mum. Don’t forget my advent calendar.

No prizes for guessing who was sent to the shop in the dark and the cold – but that is what being a parent is all about, and two Mars Bar advent calendars were duly put in padded envelopes and entrusted to the Christmas post.

We have always given our children advent calendars. Along with the nativity play and them scribbling out their Christmas lists (or e-mailing it complete with links to Amazon), it was a central part of our family’s lead-up to the big day.

…And it was cheap. Two quid for an advent calendar and if you shopped around you could almost certainly find them on three-for-two. So four pounds and our three children were taken care of for another year – at least as far as coming in from school and diving for the mantelpiece was concerned.

But all that is changing: behind the festive doors of your advent calendar you can now find everything from very expensive whisky to face cream. (Yes, I am slightly confused as to how anyone can need face-cream every day through December, but I am a middle-aged man. What do I know?)

What are advent calendars?

First used by German Lutherans in the 19th Century (who originally rubbed chalk marks off their doors) the advent calendar is now widespread among Christians – and those whose religion tends more towards shopping. Strictly speaking the first Sunday of Advent (the traditional start of Advent in the Christian calendar) varies, and can fall anywhere between November 27th and December 3rd. If you are producing an advent calendar for sale then this is remarkably inconvenient – the number of windows or doors you need could be anything from 22 to 28. So for commercial purposes, Advent starts on December 1st – very conveniently giving 24 windows which divide neatly into six rows of four.

The traditional chocolate calendar

The temptation is to think that chocolate calendars have been around forever. In fact, that’s not the case says, Alex Hutchinson archivist and historian for Nestle. (“And what do you want to do when you leave school, boy?” “Well, sir, I would like to be a chocolate historian…”)

According to Alex,

“It wasn’t until after the Second World War and the end of rationing that chocolate became more affordable. By 1960 chocolate was once more affordable but the idea of putting it in a Christmas calendar would have been seen as sacrilegious.”

Cadbury first produced a chocolate calendar in 1971, but production did not begin continuously until 1993, since when it has quickly become an essential part of the Christmas tradition.

Now it gets more expensive…

Countdown to Christmas: the Rise and Rise of Advent Calendars

Increasingly, there now seems to be a trend towards more expensive advent calendars. Even if you do not want to spend £10,000 on 60-year-old Scotch whisky there are still plenty of opportunities to give your credit card a sound thrashing. 25 miniatures of gin for £100; Fortnum and Mason’s wooden calendar filled with sweets and chocolate for £125 and – I do apologise, gentle reader – you can now even buy a sex toys advent calendar.

Rather more prosaically – and much more useful on Christmas morning when you have all those toys to assemble – the German tools company Wera has created a calendar which lets you gradually assemble a screwdriver set.

The psychologists have their say…

There seems to be an increasing trend for people to buy themselves advent calendars. ‘Self-rewarding’ is how psychologist Kate Nightingale of Style Psychology puts it.

“When you are rushing around trying to please everyone else, treating yourself to an early present is a good way to cheer yourself up,” she says. Given that men traditionally do not realise Christmas is approaching until December 24th, this may explain the growth in beauty products advent calendars. “I like the idea of a daily pick-me-up,” said one tired shopper. “I find December exhausting so it is a well-deserved treat.”

Certainly, the customers at John Lewis have been giving themselves a ‘well-deserved treat’ with their £149 beauty advent calendar quickly selling out all 3,000 that the company had in stock. But rest assured that the spirit of free enterprise is alive and well: should you need a ‘well-deserved treat’ that badly there is one on eBay – for £250…

The Four Gift Rule

Increasingly, parents are fighting back (or trying to) against the rising tide of commercialism at Christmas, and the consequent expense. After all, you can give your children too many presents – and as a consequence, the ‘four gift rule’ is gaining popularity. That is something your children want, something they need, something to wear and something to read. Whether you think this is sensible, stingy or sanctimonious is up to you: even with four gifts, you can still spend plenty of money, which is why many parents set a cap on their spending per child.

It could get worse…

Sadly, producing an advent calendar does not always go according to plan: marrying a normal commercial desire to sell more does not always sit well with the sensitivities of a Christian holiday. Bakery chain Greggs famously came a cropper for promoting its advent calendar by replacing the baby Jesus with a sausage roll, while YouTube star Zoella received fierce criticism (“overpriced tat”) for her £50 12-window calendar.

Look on the bright side, though. Some countries – especially in Scandinavia – even have ‘advent calendar’ TV programmes. The first julekalendar was shown in Denmark in 1962 and the practice quickly spread to the other Nordic countries, with the most fondly remembered being the Icelandic programme A baokari til Bethlehem. I wonder if the UK will ever go down the same route, with a gentle, reflective lead up to the Christmas season. Oh, hang on