Each December, children are delighted to receive their Advent calendars. As each door is opened, scripture, an image, and sometimes a treat is presented. This tradition has been around since the 4th century, but many of us may not realize its historical significance.

Originally, converts to Christianity spent their time during Advent to prepare for their Baptism and eventually it became the season of preparation for Jesus’ birth. Calendars began on December 1st because of the varying dates on which Advent began.

Advent—that period of great anticipatory joy—is a time of preparation for the celebration of Christ’s arrival in Bethlehem as a helpless infant. In the Western liturgy, Advent begins four Sundays prior to December 25—the Sunday closest to November 30, which is the feast day of Saint Andrew, one of Jesus’ first disciples. The annual commemoration of Christ’s birth begins the Christmas cycle of the liturgical year—a cycle that runs from Christmas Eve to the Sunday after the feast of the Epiphany.

Advent and Christmas Wisdom book series by Henri J.M. Nouwen

German Protestants were also known to mark their doors with chalk to count the days until Christmas as a way of preparing for Christmas. The paper advent calendar was originally created by Gerhard Lang who printed a calendar based on his mother’s calendar with 24 candles attached to a board. Later, printing companies added Bible verses behind the doors. Calendars with chocolate didn’t appear until the 1950s.

Today, there are many secular calendars available without sacred scripture or art, but the joy of building anticipation for Jesus’ birth still remains at the origin of this beloved Advent tradition.

For more about Advent, read:

Advent Traditions for Catholic Families

Preparing for Christmas By Observing a Holy Advent