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Keeping Track of the Holidays

November 26, 2001, by Bill Cawthon

An Advent calendar has become a part of our family’s holiday season. Although I had had Advent calendars as a child, that was during the Eisenhower years and I had forgotten about them. Marge re-introduced me to the custom a couple of years after we were married (six Presidents later). She bought a beautiful wooden Advent calendar that is still in use. Each year, the children open doors and add ornaments to the tree. As our family grew, the competition for the daily privilege forced us to adopt a rotation, so we added another calendar.

On December first, I will be opening the first door on a brand-new Advent calendar. It’s from Herpa and it is the ideal holiday treat for the 1:87 scale model car collector. I have been meaning to order one of the Herpa Advent calendars for a few years but I always seemed to wait until it was too late. Word to the wise: They sell out quickly. (I’m writing this column on November 21 and while Herpa has sold out of them, Promotex Online still shows some in stock. The order number is 147200 and the price is $119.00 plus shipping.)

When the Herpa box arrived and I was looking it over, I became curious about the origin of the Advent calendar. I was quite surprised to learn the custom is fairly new, at least in North America. I was not surprised to learn that like the Christmas tree, the Advent calendar came from Germany.

To Christians, Advent is a very important time. Far more than just being X number of shopping days before Christmas; it celebrates the time before the birth of Christ. In the Roman Catholic Church, the first Sunday of Advent (December 2 this year) marks the beginning of a new liturgical year. Observance is also strong among Protestant faiths, especially those of Germanic origin.

Advent officially begins the fourth Sunday before December 25, so a variety of customs arose to mark the days before Christmas. These traditions include the Advent clock or the Advent candle. Originally, a candle was lit each day of Advent, but that practice has given way to the modern Advent wreath with just four candles (one for each Sunday in Advent). The Advent calendar itself developed out of Lutheran family customs. Some families would make a chalk line on their door for every day in December until Christmas Eve. Other families would hang a small picture on the wall each day. Over time, parents started making small calendars to allow their children to track the days of Advent.

The first known commercial Advent calendars appeared in 1851. They were handmade craft items. It was not until more than fifty years later that the first printed version became available. Gerhard Lang (1881-1974) was a commercial printer from the Swabian region of Germany. When Lang was a child, his mother would make a small Advent calendar with a “Wibbele” (small candy) on each of the days. When he grew up, Lang became a partner in his own printing company. In 1908, he produced a calendar with a set of small pictures that could be attached to each day. It was called the "Munich Christmas Calendar." Later, Lang introduced a calendar with paper doors that each opened to reveal a small picture. About the same time, a religious printing house, Sankt Johannes, began producing their own version with Bible verses behind each opening.

The printed Advent calendars quickly became popular and Lang prospered for a time. Unfortunately, the worldwide economic depression caught up with him in the 1930s and he had to close his shop. By that time, he had produced thirty different Advent calendar designs. Fortunately, other printing houses had begun making Advent calendars, but they were still mainly for the home market, as the custom had not yet become widespread. Outside of German immigrants who brought the tradition with them, Advent calendars were almost unknown in North America.

During World War II, Advent calendar production was halted by the rationing of cardboard and restrictions imposed by the Nazi government. It did not resume until more than a year after the Allied victory.

Richard Sellmer of Stuttgart printed the first postwar Advent calendar in 1946. He had to get a printing license from the U.S. Army and buy his paper in the U.S. Military Zone, but these restrictions actually worked to his benefit. They gave him contacts among the Americans who bought his products and sent them home. This helped Sellmer's sales and by 1950, he was exhibiting at the Nürnberg Toy Fair. The calendars quickly became popular in the U.S. Even President Dwight Eisenhower was a Sellmer fan.

Richard Sellmer died in 1969, but his son took over the firm and continued production. Richard Sellmer Verlag is still a family business and for the last 50 years has been Germany's only printer devoted entirely to Advent calendars and similar products. Nowadays many companies make a variety of Advent calendars, but the Sellmers are still a traditional favorite.

Like those Gerhard Lang’s mother made a century ago, modern Advent calendars often contain something other than pictures or Biblical passages. These days, each window or door in the calendar usually hides a small treat, like a toy or candy. In Germany, it is customary to give children their Advent calendars on the first Sunday after November 26. This way, the youngsters have a little something until Weihnachtsmann (the German Santa Claus) finally arrives on Christmas Eve.

Every year since 1987, Herpa Miniaturmodelle has produced a new Advent calendar. Two dozen car models are packed in a special carton with 24 diecut doors and a hinged flap to allow hanging the calendar on the wall. The models are housed in a vacuum-formed plastic insert to keep them aligned with the “doors” and protected during shipping. There is also a clear plastic box containing the separate rearview mirrors for the various models that need them. In the spirit of, ahem, accurate reporting, I took a look at the entire 2001 collection. I don’t want to spoil the surprise for others who may have more patience than I, but I will say there is a very nice selection, including some of Herpa’s latest car models. While my Herpa collection already has some of them, the majority are models that were on my “to do” list. Half the models are standard production. Of the remainder, eleven are molded in colors produced especially for the calendar. The last model is described as a “Top-Überraschung” or “surprise” and it is definitely unique.

Believe it or not, one of the best things about the Herpa calendar is the price. Even with Promotex Online’s standard shipping, the total price in the U.S. is just under $125.00. That makes the per-model price just $5.20, a real bargain considering these are first-rate models.

This year, for the first time, Wings collectors got their own Advent calendar. It includes a special Herpa aircraft model for each of the four Sundays in Advent. The part number is 512800, but it is sold out at both Herpa and at Promotex Online.

One extra benefit I will get from the Herpa Advent calendar is a lot of fun. My youngest is four years old and loves model cars. Will and I are going to enjoy these together. This could be the start of our own annual tradition.

Marge, Will, Wendy, Jill, Chris and I want to wish you a very happy and safe holiday season.

P.S. I hope you will remember to share your Christmas with those less fortunate. This year the need is especially great, so if you can help, please do.

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is an award-winning modeller and collector. His primary modeling interests are model railroading and vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales. He has written numerous articles for regional and division NMRA publications and is a contributor to the newsletter of the 1-87 Vehicle Club. He follows both the automobile industry and the European scale vehicle industry.

In real life, Bill is a full-time marketing and public relations consultant for the high-tech industry. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and four children.

Bill writes bi-weekly for Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: October 12, 2005