Question: "What is an advent calendar? How does an advent calendar relate to Christmas?"
Answer: The word 'Advent' has a Latin origin meaning 'the coming,' or more accurately, 'coming toward.' For Christian believers, Christmas is one of the greatest events in the yearly cycle, being the celebration of the greatest gift ever given by God to mankind. That gift was Jesus, the Son of God Himself, born into this world in human form and coming to live among us to show us the true nature of God, experience human joy and sorrow along with us, and finally, going of His own will to die a horrible, agonizing death. In this way the price was paid for all human sin that had cut us off from our Holy God and Heavenly Father, resulting in our complete and total reconciliation with Him.
Centuries ago, the importance of this event caused many Christians to feel that it was inadequate merely to mark off only one day on the yearly calendar for celebrating this incredible gift from God. Believers had (and still do have) such a sense of awe and overwhelming gratitude and wonder at what happened that first Christmas that they felt the need for a period of preparation immediately beforehand. They could then not only take time themselves to meditate on it, but also teach their children the tremendous significance of Christmas.
At first, the days preceding Christmas were marked off from December 1 with chalk on believers' doors. Then in Germany in the late 19th century the mother of a child named Gerhard Lang made her son an Advent Calendar comprised of 24 tiny sweets stuck onto cardboard. Lang never forgot the excitement he felt when he was given his Advent calendar at the beginning of each December, and how it reminded him every day that the greatest celebration of the whole year was approaching ever nearer. As an adult he went into partnership with his friend Reichhold and opened a printing office. In 1908, they produced what is thought to be the first-ever printed Advent Calendar with a small colored picture for each day in Advent. Later on, at the beginning of the 20th century, they hit on the idea of making the pictures into little shuttered windows for the children to open day by day in order to heighten their sense of expectation.
The idea of the Advent Calendar caught on with other printing firms as the demand swiftly increased, and many versions were produced, some of which would have printed on them Bible verses appropriate to the Advent period. By now the Advent Calendar had gained international popularity, and children all over the world were clamoring for them as December approached. Unfortunately, the custom came to an end with the beginning of the First World War when cardboard was strictly rationed and only allowed to be used for purposes necessary to the war effort. However, in 1946, when rationing began to ease following the end of the Second World War, a printer named Richard Sellmer once again introduced the colorful little Advent Calendar, and again it was an immediate success.
Sadly, with the wane of Christianity in Western nations, the Advent Calendar, although still enormously popular with all children, has lost its true meaning. Many, many children and their parents have no idea of the history of the little calendar or its true purpose, which is to prepare us for the celebration of the advent of the Christ-child. Even if they do know, most would not care. Also, the makers of today's Advent calendars are anxious only to sell their product, and the majority of these neither know nor care about the meaning and purpose of Advent. Their calendars depict Santa Claus and his reindeer, snowmen, holly, mistletoe, and all the secular trappings of Christmas behind the little windows, often along with a piece of chocolate. Fortunately, however, Christian printers are still with us to manufacture calendars for children from Christian families that unfold the story of the nativity with each window that is opened. We, as Christian believers, pray that one day the whole world will be aware of the incredible wonder of the true meaning of Advent and Christmas.