Every December, my family puts up stitched pieces of cloth on a wall in our hallway; one for each family member. Our advent calenders have small, wrapped gifts occupying each day leading up to Christmas. Each day we gather together and unwrap our gift from that rung on the calender. On Christmas Eve we unwrap our last advent calender gift, contributing to our Christmas spirit and anticipation for the following day. Knowing that my grandmother (my father’s mother) contributed, I asked her where the tradition started. Through email, she answered:
“The advent of advent calendars (little joke there) isn’t as far back as one would think. Advent isn’t really from December 1st to the 24th (it can start as early as late November, or as late as December 3rd), but this is when it’s traditionally celebrated now. The German Lutherans used to count down the days of advent by putting a mark each day on a door, or by burning a candle. Some handmade calendars began appearing about 1850, but it wasn’t until around 1902 that a German stationer came up with the paper calendar with little doors to be opened each day, with a picture or scripture behind them. Now they can be paper, wood, cloth, or other materials.
I couldn’t find anything about the beginning of the cross-stitched calendars with the little rings for attaching wrapped-up objects, except that they seem to have started in Scandinavia, where embroidery is so beautifully done. As I checked out some photos of completed–and loaded!–stitched calendars, they all seemed to have CANDY tied to the rings. Now, why couldn’t we have started out with that custom, instead of little gifts???
We used to take family trips to Solvang, and as far as our family custom goes, my mom (your Grandma Thelma) found the needlework kits at Thumbelina’s Danish Needlework shop there. She bought and worked three of them: blue for Uncle Chris, red for your dad, and beige for Uncle Jeff. She finished them, bought all the gifts, wrapped them and tied them on, and brought the calendars to our house the evening of November 30, 1963. Chris was 8 years old, your dad 6, and Jeff 3. You can imagine the excitement the next morning when the boys discovered this wonderful new treasure trove! You can imagine my excitement around November 15, 1964 when I realized I was now responsible for 72 little wrapped-up gifts! I have to give my mom credit, though–she helped not only buy the gifts, she also came over and helped wrap and tie every – single – one – every – year.
Friends who had kids saw my kids’ calendars, thought, “What a good idea!,” and asked if I’d make calendars for them. I loved to cross-stitch (still do), so happily complied. It escalated, and I was “commissioned” to stitch calendars for friends of friends, co-workers, neighbors…finally teenage friends of my kids, and at last Jina, your mom, and Nancy, too, and then: GRANDCHILDREN! A rough count says I’ve made at least 40 of them. At first I bought charts, but ran out of printed ones, so used other designs, and finally made up my own. I did not stitch your calendar, nor Allison’s nor Nic’s–your mom did all of them–and then Tyrel’s! The last one I did was Bailey Johnson’s, and I didn’t finish it until she was 12 years old. At that point I said, No more, never, not ever! And I meant it. When you have children, their grandmother can stitch their calendars.
I have a calendar of my own. Some of the kids I had made calendars for decided, when they were in their late teens or early twenties, that they would make me one. A girl named Louise made a rough draft, and Jeff designed it and graphed it (I swear, he should have gone into that business), and they all passed it around and worked on it. Gini, Janet, Ron and Imrie, Michael, Jina (I don’t think your mom was in the picture yet), Louise–it’s HUGE, and it’s wonderful! Have you seen it? It hangs year-’round behind my bedroom door now.
I shop for the gifts all year. In fact, I’ll find things in December for the following year. Discovering just the right thing is the most fun shopping I do. So please don’t say I’m gracious for providing the Little Things for the grandkids’ calendars: I’m joyous, is what I am!”
Advent calenders provide families with an opportunity to gather regularly.When my sister got married, my mom making an advent calender for him was a way of inducting him into our family. He was able to share in the family tradition and spend time with us opening gifts everyday. Holidays are generally a familial time, and advent calenders provide a nice reminder and build anticipation in the days before Christmas.
The following is a picture of the original three advent calender’s that Thelma made for her three grandsons, Chris, Tim (my father) and Jeff.