What Is the Meaning of an Advent Calendar?

Advent Calendar Display

Whether you’re looking for a fun activity to keep the kids occupied until Santa’s visit or you just want a little something to get yourself into the Christmas spirit, Advent calendars are a must-have holiday tradition. Advent calendars have become as central and festive a part of the holiday season as Christmas trees, hanging lights, and cocoa. But what does an Advent calendar mean traditionally, and why do we use them to mark the days until Christmas?

What Is an Advent Calendar?

An Advent calendar helps countdown the days until Christmas, usually with a small item or devotional phrase that is revealed on each day. Traditional calendars are rectangular cards or boxes you can hang on the wall or sit on a table with small sealed doors or windows meant to be opened in order on each day of Advent. Depending on the type of calendar, you might find holiday sweets, Bible verses or devotions, small toys or gifts, or other surprises behind each window.

The modern version of the Advent calendar originated in the 1800s, evolving out of German Lutherans’ practice of making chalk marks on a wall or lighting a candle to tally up the days until Christmas. Since then, Advent calendars have become a common and popular holiday tradition. Today you can find everything from traditional religious calendars to ones with Santa or festive winter imagery, versions shaped like Christmas trees, sports or hobby-themed varieties, or even calendars featuring TV shows or cartoon characters.

What Is the Meaning of Advent?

Advent is an important season in the Christian church calendar, much like Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. It is the period of time before Christmas meant to prompt reflection as Christians look ahead to prepare for the birth of Jesus. (Advent comes from the Latin word “adventus,” which means “arrival.”) For many religious people, Advent means meditating on the spiritual sense of hope and anticipation eventually fulfilled by Jesus’ birth. As it is often celebrated in popular culture, Advent can also mark the beginning of the holiday season, bringing with it a festive sense of joy and Christmas spirit!

What Are Some Common Advent Symbols?

There are a variety of other meaningful colors, objects, and Advent symbols that may be found on a calendar or incorporated into a larger Advent display in one’s home. Purple, for instance, is a color that traditionally represents royalty, while royal blue is often meant to convey hope and anticipation. Hanging Christmas greens like garland and ivy is also a common way to mark the beginning of Advent

While an Advent calendar is meant to help mark the days until Christmas, Advent wreaths and candles are also often incorporated into religious services. Similar to how Advent calendars have a door for each day of the season, Advent wreaths include 4 candles: one for each week. Some also include a fifth, larger “Christ candle” for lighting on Christmas Eve or day.

Fun Christmas Craft Idea: Want to make your own Advent wreath to go along with your calendar? Get four candles—typically 3 that are purple or rose-colored and 1 that is white—and carefully fix them to the inside of a standard evergreen Christmas wreath. This can be a quick, fun, and festive craft to make with the whole family! (Just be sure to extinguish any candles when you’re not around to keep an eye on them.)

When Do You Start the Advent Calendar?

Traditionally Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, referred to as Advent Sunday (or the First Sunday of Advent). This means that depending on the year Advent could start any day between November 27 and December 3. Advent calendars that are custom made for a specific year may start on Advent Sunday in order to directly correspond to the liturgical calendar.

However, most common Advent calendars just start on December 1 and run through December 24 (or sometimes the 25th). This makes it convenient to start your calendar at the beginning of the month and count down the 24 (or 25) days until Christmas. It also means that if you choose to get a reusable Advent calendar, you can refill it with new goodies and fun surprises every holiday season!

Are All Advent Calendars Religious?

There are a wide variety of Christian and denominational Advent calendars that feature religious imagery and daily devotions (such as Bible verses printed on the inside of each door). However unlike an Advent wreath or Advent candles, which are more or less exclusively used in religious services, Advent calendars have become a common and recognizable part of popular culture. Many people find Advent calendars to be a fun tradition around the holidays, helping them count down the days to Christmas with little treats or surprises each day. Because their popularity has grown as a cultural tradition, there are a variety of Advent calendars available that are not directly tied to their religious origins.

Types of Advent Calendars

There are many different kinds of Advent calendars, from religious devotional versions to those featuring Santa, winter wonderlands, and other contemporary Christmas themes. Beyond the specific look and design of each calendar, there are also variations depending on what surprises they contain behind the windows for each day.

Some common types of Advent calendars are:

Daily Devotions – The most traditional Advent calendars provide a kind of guided reflection on one’s religious values in the form of Bible verses, prayers, or devotions to be read each day. Sometimes these calendars may incorporate some of Jesus’ teachings and sermons, or even offer condensed retellings of the Christmas story over the 4 weeks of Advent. 

Sweet Treats – One of the favorite kinds of Advent calendars are the ones that reveal chocolates, candy, or other fun snacks behind each day’s window. Whether it’s different varieties of meats or cheeses (refrigerated, of course), samples of tea or coffee, or a new type of decadent Godiva chocolate each day, food Advent calendars offer something fun for everyone.

Beer or Wine – There are plenty of different options to choose from if you want something to open at night instead of in the morning, including a variety of alcoholic Advent calendars. From liqueur-filled chocolates to small airplane-sized bottles of wine to a new beer to sample, these calendars can give you a little something special to look forward to at the end of each day. 

Toys – While you’re enjoying a sample from a new vineyard, toy Advent calendars will offer a fun surprise for the kids each day of December. There are tons of options here, with Advent calendars containing legos, small dolls or action figures, toy cars, popular kids show toys and more.

Puzzles or Games – Some Advent calendars can be activity-based for a fun twist on the daily “sweets” versions that are more common. These calendars may include brain teasers, logic puzzles, quick games, funny questions to ask a friend or loved one, or even daily challenges. These are great options if you’re looking for a non-religious Advent calendar that can give you something to think about throughout the day.

For Pets – Why leave out your furry friends during the holidays? There are even Advent calendars for pets so they can enjoy a treat or a new toy each day right along with you!

You can also pick out Advent calendars based on their specific aesthetic or design. For instance, some calendars have a specifically designed door for each Sunday of Advent, which visually marks the beginning of a new week and may even include a unique surprise behind it. Many Advent calendars have larger or double windows for December 24 (or the 25th if it’s included). These may hold a special treat or a particularly meaningful devotion, and sometimes reveal illustrated Christmas scenes like the nativity or the coming of the three wise men.

Whether you’re looking for a new Advent calendar to carry on a years-long tradition, or you want to try celebrating for the first time this year, these fun calendars are sure to put you in the Christmas mood. Plus, Advent calendars are a great option if you’re looking for early inexpensive Christmas gifts!