Advent calendars: why do we count down to Christmas with an advent calendar - and why are they chocolate?

Here’s why we open calendars and gorge on chocolate even before Christmas has arrived

One of the most popular Christmas traditions, particularly with children, is the daily opening of an advent calendar, and the finding of some kind of treat or chocolate behind each door.

The calendars help us countdown to Christmas Day and have become big business, with all sorts of variations on the theme that deviate from your usual chocolate-based items.

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Cheese, LEGO, gin, makeup… nothing is off limits these days!

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Historians believe that the period of Advent has been celebrated since the fourth century, but when did calendars come in, and when did they turn from austere picture-based countdowns to festive sweet treats?

Here is everything you need to know.

Where did advent calendars come from?

(Photo: Shutterstock)(Photo: Shutterstock)
(Photo: Shutterstock)

In a 2016 survey on Christmas traditions, over 25 per cent of Brits assumed the advent calendar to be a British invention, while nearly the same amount thought it came from Norway.

But the practise of opening an advent calendar actually originated in 19th century Germany.

Its origins can be traced back to German Lutherans Christians, one of the largest branches of Protestantism, to whom the periods of Advent and Christmas are especially important.

Indeed, we have the Lutherans to thank for many of our Christmas traditions – wreaths, trees and carols to name but a few. They would mark 24 chalk lines on a door ahead of Christmas Day, rubbing one out every day as they counted down to the festivities.

When did they start containing chocolate?

In the 1900s, the first paper advent calendars were also produced in Germany. They used traditional winter scenes like snowmen and robins, with pictures hidden behind a door.

Traditionally, they were reusable and designed to provide a joyful countdown to Christmas year after year, and it’s from these long-lasting calendars that the common misconception that Advent begins on the 1 December comes.

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The First Sunday of Advent is the true start of the season, the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. The date of this day can vary from year to year, and in 2020 it falls on Sunday 29 November.

This variance in date means that Advent can be of differing lengths each year, and so traditional calendars simply adopted 1 December as their start date, to allow for reuse no matter when Advent technically began.

According to, Gerhard Lang is widely credited as the creator of the first printed Advent calendars, and based his idea on a childhood tradition where his mother would help him countdown to Christmas by attaching 24 sweets to cardboard squares.

When did chocolate come into the mix?

While chocolates and other sweets treats had often been used to countdown to Christmas in the past, the first mass-produced chocolate-based Advent calendar wouldn’t come until the 1950s.

The first mass market chocolate calendar appeared in 1958, with Cadbury taking things into the cocoa mainstream by launching their efforts nearly 15 years later in 1971.

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