When I was a child, we marked the passage of days in Advent until Christmas with a beautifully illustrated paper calendar printed in “West” Germany (that should date me). Being a clergyman’s family, we reused the same calendar many years, each day being careful to exclaim with delight over the familiar image revealed by the opening of the day’s door (“The Candle!” “A manger!”). They weren’t terribly exciting pictures, but it helped us mark the time to wait to receive our gifts, which we opened on Christmas Eve in accordance with our mother’s German family customs. (It was also more convenient for our father, the minister, who often had three services at church on Christmas Day, starting at 7 a.m.)
As my children grew, I looked for the modern versions of my childhood Advent calendar, and was disappointed as my modern children failed to be thrilled by the pictures of candles and gifts hidden behind the doors. Apparently, my children were not the only ones seeking greater thrills each day of Advent. While I wasn’t paying attention, Advent calendars have become an industry unto themselves.
In Germany, many holidays have a distinctly Christian orientation. In addition, Germans, of necessity, do not partake in such secular American holidays as Independence Day. This poses a problem for retailers, lacking the nearly seamless U.S. transition from Halloween, to Thanksgiving, to Christmas. Autumn in Germany, together with Oktoberfest, permits the sale of seasonally themed decorations, but once Oktoberfest ends, German retailers have nothing but Advent to look forward to. (The first of November, All Saint’s Day is a day off, but not one you can buy decorations for.) You need to make your Advent calendar choices no later than the end of November.
Apparently, the choice of an Advent calendar is something we have to make carefully. Advent calendars began appearing in my local stores in mid-October, right after Oktoberfest and the New Wine Festivals ended. The first calendars I saw had rather familiar content, such as Legos, or Kinder-Eggs. And it seemed quite natural to see these for sale so early. German stores must be very anxious to make some money on Christmas before the opening of the Advent-long Christmas markets in the central square of almost every city and town draws all the euros away.
But then I strayed into the largest local department store and discovered it had been converted into Gift Wonderland. An entire aisle was devoted to chocolate-filled Advent calendars made by different chocolatiers with a variety of elegant or sentimental artistic themes. Most are enormous, very beautiful, and extremely expensive.
Nearby, in the perfume department, I was shocked to see “make-up” and “bath luxuries” Advent calendars.
In the toy department I found that Lego had been joined by Playmobil (where have I been?), which offers Pirate and Knight themed calendars. That’s to be expected—these are toys of European origin. What stunned me was finding My Little Pony, and Barbie, Advent calendars.
At first, I had been delighted by this season’s Advent calendars. I was dazzled by the beauty and variety of those in the expensive department store. But then, Barbie, and My Little Pony! These are no longer the fragile crutches that helped me and my sisters wait another day until we finally received our modest presents. These are a month’s worth of gifts, to tide children over until the day they are showered with gifts! The blatant commercialism disturbed me. I love Germany, but it’s not immune to the same materialism that besets our culture.
I’m considering a new custom for my family. How about if everyone has the Advent calendar of his or her choice, and we call it done? Well, I would probably be the first to break my own rule and start buying Christmas gifts too, as soon as the Advent calendars make way for them. Maybe I’ll do a back-to-the-land kind of thing: make my own Advent calendars, revealing an activity to do each day that a child might actually enjoy, and learn something from about the meaning of Christmas. For my grandchildren!