I was introduced to the Advent Calendar in 1991 in Cologne, Germany. Near the Cristkindlmarkt or Weihnachtsmarkt or Christmas Market was a store displaying as an art form the different types of advent calendars  – it was love at first sight! I was reminded of my childhood Decembers, spent counting the nights until Christmas. The Advent Calendar had a different, hidden, tantalizing treat per day from the start of December until Christmas Day. What a fascinating way to count down to Christmas!

The exhibit showed something like this – elaborate and creative. I wish I can make something like this.

As a Christian, specifically, a Catholic, I am familiar with “advent” but the “advent calendar” was a new thing for me. I did some research. The Advent Calendar can be traced back to Germany in the early 19th century. The German Lutherans would count down to Christmas starting from December 1 by lighting candles. Eventually, someone came up with the idea of printing calendars with tiny windows that one opened showing a picture of inside the house and a verse from the bible. My German friend was so amused at my fascination with the advent calendar that her mom gave me one. It was an Advent Calendar with a picture of a house with small windows that you opened, and tadah – there was a chocolate inside… every single day. Ok – that was fun, but not that fun. Too predictable. Still, I gave one to each of my nephews and nieces as a present when I went home for Christmas.

My first attempt to make an Advent Calendar was for my best friend. It was an elaborate story telling of some sort. A piece of the story was told each day, and a gift related to that piece of story was wrapped in a package. It was a hit… but that was way too much work. I couldn’t do that for everyone.

When I came back to Manila to stay in 1994, I thought once again of the Advent Calendar and started making calendars for my nephews and nieces, and then for the children of my friends, and for the children of my colleagues. Knowing already that chocolates were too predictable, I made 25 gift-wrapped bags, each containing a small toy and a food item. Since my objective was to make it a fun activity, at the minimum, I made it safe by ensuring that the toys were non-hazardous, and that the treats were generally not allergenic.  The toys and food were then tailored to specific age groups, their gender, and yes, their allergens. I knew which child had allergies to nuts and food coloring.  I couldn’t bear to see the child disappointed when s/he excitedly opened a present, only to find out that s/he couldn’t eat it. At the start, I also decided that big toys were only for weekends. After some years, nah – it’s ok. Why not let them play with these anytime of the week.

Each year, I made a different style of calendar… trying to perfect it by observing how the kids used or reacted to it, and listening to their feedback. Yes, they went to me to tell me what they thought about their calendars… even made requests for more toys, more chocolates etc etc.

Through the years, my calendars evolved. My first ones were calendars printed on A3 paper, with colorfully wrapped presents that were stapled to each date.  It was fun but the kids found the chronological arrangement of dates too easy. Another year, I had the dates randomly placed. That was better – the element of “search for the hidden treasure” made it a little bit more exciting. One year, I figured it was too time consuming to be making those small paper bags; I used clear plastic bags instead. Big mistake. Since they could see what was inside, it was not exciting at all. Kids love to guess… to be pressing the bag until it’s almost torn, trying to feel what’s inside. In another year, I sewed the Advent Calendars. The calendars were in the shape of a house, with 24 windows as pockets, and the 25th as the door. I figured that I could reuse that, and hence won’t have to make one every year. Anyway, that’s the pretty usual advent calendar that’s in the market – why not use it. However, it didn’t work that well. The sizes of the pockets limited the treats that I could use, and learning from experience, I still have to gift-wrap the treats.

This style is pretty common in the US and Europe – calendars with pockets to insert the treat. It wasn’t available here in the Philippines so I made several to give away.

Eventually, I perfected it. Random listing of dates.  Each treat gift wrapped. The treats tailored to the child’s interest.  Include bible verses to remind them what Christmas was all about.

I’ve been doing this for 18 years. Most of the kids who received it when I first started are adults now. They still come to me saying what fun they had with the calendar. That the happy memories they had of Christmas was having the advent calendar as their count down. I’m glad they enjoyed it. Every year when I’m making one, I ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” It’s extremely labor intensive, time-consuming, tiring and expensive. There was one year that after a trip to Divisoria to buy the toys, I was sick for days because of pollution. I had to cram making it in my very busy schedule of 70-hour work week.  So what was my answer? I did and I still do it because of what it means and what it does. Christmas is the best holiday for kids – and what can be more enjoyable than having fun waiting for your favorite holiday? The parents loved it too. They said that they wished that there was an “Advent Calendar” for the entire year  so that their child was always on good behavior. They used it as an incentive for the children to do their chores or schoolwork. Parents loved it so much that even when I already established my cut-off age of 11, they would beg me – “One more year, one more year! My boy only looks big, but he’s still a child!” Hahaha! Of course they had to beg – since I didn’t sell it, they couldn’t buy it.

My regret is that I didn’t make a scientific study on this. Remember the marshmallow test? I could’ve done something like that.  Small children (usually under 4-yo) have the most difficult time controlling their urge to open all the presents at once. But I saw that children could be taught to be patient and be disciplined. If the parent allows the child to open everything all in one day, the child will not really learn to be patient.  Meaning, even at the age of 9 or 10, they will still do it because they were constantly tolerated to do so. That’s what saddened me, actually. When the parents do not appreciate or understand what advent truly is – it is waiting for Christmas. It’s the anticipation; it’s the joy that comes with waiting.

Almost perfect version – I have to replace the white Bible messages with something nicer looking. The final product took years of experimentation but it’s so worth it.

This year, I decided to release the advent calendar commercially. I did the math – it’s not that financially lucrative because of the material and labor component, and I want to make it affordable to more people. When I think of the amount of time I spend on this (minus the actual labor of wrapping which I will farm out), it doesn’t even compare to my professional rate as a consultant and architect.  I had to fit it in my hectic consultancy schedule. So I asked myself again – why am I doing this? Because, through 18 years, I’ve seen how much the kids enjoyed waiting for Christmas with the advent calendar… it was one of the highlights of their childhood.  I think it’s time to share the fun with others, and remind people that the meaning of Advent is joyfully waiting for the coming of Jesus.

Advent Calendar Flyer