German children start to observe Advent traditions today, when they open the first door of their Advent calendar. Until Dec. 24, each day they will open a door. When all 24 doors are open, they will receive their gifts. In Germany, the gift exchange always is on Christmas Eve.
The word Advent comes from the Latin verb “advenare” which means “to arrive” and indicates the coming of Christ.
The history of the Advent calendar is more than 100 years old. It was invented by a mother in Munich, whose son Gerhard, as soon as the first candle of the Advent wreath was lit, kept asking when Santa Claus would come and bring the gifts. Gerhard Lang’s mother had to think of something to make him understand when the waiting time is over. She designed a cardboard box and drew 24 squares on it. She explained to little Gerhard that each square means getting up once and going to bed again. She even sewed a cookie onto each square to sweeten the waiting time. From then on, Gerhard’s mother had to design a calendar every year until she thought he was too old for it.
At the turn of the century, Gerhard Lang founded, together with a partner, a lithographic art publishing company. When business wasn’t good anymore, he remembered his mother’s idea and brought the “Munich Christmas calendar” onto the market in 1904. Its subtitle was “The 24 Waiting Days” and it was sold for 30 pfennigs (about 15 euro cents) in stationer shops.
Today, different kinds of Advent calendars are available — cardboard calendars, felt calendars with filled pockets, 24 bags hung up on a string or 24 little houses set up like a town.
Lighting candles on the Advent wreath is another pre-Christmas tradition. The original Advent wreath is made of fir tree branches decorated with four candles, fir cones, ribbons and little Christmas ornaments. The first candle is lit the fourth Sunday before Christmas, then each following Advent Sunday another one is lit. Today, Advent wreaths of different shapes are made of different materials and placed in homes, stores, offices, public buildings and churches.
The history of the Advent wreath goes back to northern Germany in 1839, when Johann Hinrich Wichern, the founder of the Evangelist Home Mission and a juvenile home, created the first wreath made of wood and decorated with 24 candles, four big white ones for Sundays and little red ones to be lit on weekdays.
Many Germans bake their Christmas cookies during Advent. There is a big variety — cookies with nuts, almonds, chocolate, marmalade, nougat, vanilla or marzipan. Traditional butter cookies are made in the shape of Christmas motifs such as stars, Christmas trees, candles, bells and snowmen.
Other baked goods only offered during pre-Christmas time are Dresdner Stollen, a cake filled with raisins, candied lemon peel and orange peel, and gingerbread or “Lebkuchen,” which is known all over the world.