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Column: The big business of advent calendars
Shannon Casas high res
Shannon Casas

As a child, during the advent season I very carefully would pick up a little wooden wand with a star on one end, poke the other end into a little hole in a paper flap, open it and find a tiny wooden ornament. Then I’d use that wand to pick up the ornament by a string loop and hang it on a little peg on a wooden tree.

There was no chocolate, no new toy, just a small challenge in dexterity. And we loved it. 

There were four of us and two similar advent calendars. So we took turns and I’m sure fought about who was going to complete the task. 

Today, the advent calendar business seems to have exploded. You can buy advent calendars with candies, like one from Williams Sonoma with Dolly Parton’s face on it. Or get one from Aldi with small bottles of wine. Or buy one with fancy jellies, Hot Wheels cars, dog treats or Spider-Man toys. It seems your imagination and budget is the limit on what you can treat yourself or your family with each day. 

Dior sells one for $3,500 that includes beauty products and candles. Don’t rush to purchase that one online — it’s limited edition and, as of this writing, temporarily unavailable.

Our simple advent calendars growing up helped us countdown to Christmas, when Santa would bring his gifts and we’d open them one by one.

I also recall lighting advent candles in the Baptist church. There was a wreath in the front of the sanctuary with candles, and one would be lit as part of the service. The religious significance was mostly lost on me, though I was in church most every Sunday.

So, how did the religious observance of advent turn into a commercial boon?

The season of advent is recognized the four weeks preceding Christmas. It’s a time of anticipation and hope for the coming of Jesus. I’ve learned to appreciate it more as part of the Methodist tradition.

While Christmas is the celebration of Jesus’ birth, the church started celebrating it on Dec. 25 in the 4th century. The date coincides with an ancient pagan festival, Saturnalia, which honored the god Saturn. Most scholars believe Jesus was likely born in the spring. 

The advent calendar seems to have originated much later, the 19th century, in Germany. It took off in the United States when President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s grandchildren were photographed holding one, according to a German advent calendar company founded in 1945.

This past week, when my sister sent a picture of a Hot Wheels advent calendar, I bristled at the commercialization of this religious season. I wanted to ask if baby Jesus was going to be riding in the Hot Wheel car on Dec. 25. 

It seems I’m going to have to go back a long way to complain about taking the “Christ” out of Christmas on this one. Side note, I wonder if the Romans thought to themselves that their changing society was taking the “Saturn” out of Saturnalia.

I’d be happier if we all just started calling these Christmas countdown calendars, which would be more accurate anyway. But nobody asked me.

If I ever get around to buying advent calendars for my boys, they’re more likely going to have some religious themes. In the meantime, I’m just trying to keep up with our Elf on the Shelf, another tradition that was invented to sell things. 

Jingles, our elf, only came back two nights ago, but my boys found the elf literally on the shelf today. His creative mischief seems to need some jingle juice.

But the boys seemed thrilled with the elf being on the shelf. 

Whatever traditions you’re celebrating — or skipping — I hope you have a merry Christmas season filled with hope, peace, joy and love.


Shannon Casas is director of audience for Metro Market Media, parent company of The Times. She is a North Hall resident.