The origin of the calendar, like so many of our Christmas traditions, started in Germany in the 19th century. Different methods of counting down the days to the celebration of Christmas were used.
Drawing a chalk line to mark off the days, later lighting a candle every night or putting up small religious pictures marked each day until Christmas. The first printed calendar was produced by Gerhard Lang in Germany. When he was a child, his mother attached little candies to a piece of cardboard and each day Gerhard would take one off. His first (printed) calendar consisted of miniature colored pictures that would be attached to a piece of cardboard each day in December. Later Advent calendars were made with little doors to open on each day. The child might find a small piece of candy, a Christmas picture, a religious picture or a bible verse.
The German calendars were sold until World War II, at which time production was stopped due to the war shortages. After the war, the production of calendars resumed in 1946 by Richard Selmer. Selmer credits President Eisenhower with helping the tradition grow in the United States during his term of office. A newspaper article at the time showed the Eisenhower grandchildren with The Little Town Advent calendar. His company still produces calendars today and can be ordered online. Check out the online museum to see some of their early designs.
The first Advent calendars were based on 24 days with Christmas Eve as the last night to either put up a picture or take a candy. Today, the traditional German calendars still show 24 days, but in the United States, it's not uncommon to also find ones with 25 days -- the last opening to occur on Christmas Day.
Advent Calendars can be found everywhere Christmas is celebrated and have been made with many different themes. There are permanent ones with little drawers that are opened every day, felt pieces to decorate a tree, religious icons behind the different doors and lots of pop-culture/character Advent calendars. The traditional ones are still a paper/cardboard piece with a small treasure behind the doors. The treasures can range from a beautiful miniature religious picture, perhaps a little wooden toy or even a piece of candy (sure to cause problems when there is more than one child in the household).
In our family we have a tradition that dates back to 1969, when I found a wooden tree Advent Calendar. There are painted wooden ornaments and each day another ornament is chosen to be added to the tree. On Christmas day, the star tree topper is finally added. The tree has grown a little shabby and the ornaments are getting tattered, but it's still a tradition looked forward to every December.
It's not to late to start a tradition like this for your family, one that will become a real treasure in the years to come.
Vintage Calendar Values
Bronner's Advent Calendars
An amazing, and World Largest Christmas shop that sells a large selection of Advent calendars and wreaths.
Dozens of choices to pick from including traditional, toy-related, fun and decorative Advent calendars.
Richard Selmer's Museum of post war calendars.