You don't need an Advent calendar to know that Christmas is coming, but opening a little numbered door to reveal a prize is an idea that everyone—religious or not—can get behind. Here’s a brief history of Advent calendars and a few non-traditional designs of this popular tradition.

What Is Advent?

Advent is the four-week period beginning on the Sunday nearest the feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle (November 30) through the following three Sundays. Historians estimate that Advent, which derives from the Latin word for coming, has been celebrated since the 4th century. Originally, the period was a time for converts to Christianity to prepare for baptism, but it's now more commonly associated with the anticipation of the anniversary of Christ’s birth on December 25.

What Is an Advent Calendar?

Advent calendars typically don’t follow the period of Advent described above. Instead, they begin on December 1 and mark the 24 days before Christmas. Today, most Advent calendars include paper doors that open to reveal an image, Bible verse, or piece of chocolate. The tradition dates to the mid-19th century, when German Protestants made chalk marks on doors or lit candles to count the days leading up to Christmas.

The History of Advent Calendars

Gerhard Lang is widely considered the producer of the first printed Advent calendar in the early 1900s. Around the same time, a German newspaper included an Advent calendar insert as a gift to its readers. Lang’s calendar was inspired by one that his mother had made for him and featured 24 colored pictures that attached to a piece of cardboard. Lang modified his calendars to include the little doors that are a staple of most Advent calendars today, and they became a commercial success in Germany. Production stopped due to a cardboard shortage during World War II, but resumed soon after, with Richard Sellmer emerging as the leading producer of commercial Advent calendars.

Dwight D. Eisenhower is often credited for the proliferation of the Advent calendar tradition in the United States. During his presidency, Eisenhower was photographed opening an Advent calendar with his grandchildren and the photo ran in several national newspapers.

What to Put In an Advent Calendar

You could go traditional and make each day's treat a piece of chocolate, a quote, or an image. Or, you could put a modern twist on your Advent calendar and follow a specific, pop culture-related theme.

Some institutions take their versions to the next level. There have been a lot of jaw-dropping Advent calendars over the years. One of the most expensive Advent calendars to ever hit the shelves was a 4-foot, Christmas-tree shaped structure carved from burr elm and walnut wood available through Harrods in 2007. Each of the $50,000 calendar’s 24 compartments housed a piece of organic chocolate from Green & Black, with proceeds going to support cocoa farmers in Belize.

According to Guinness World Records, the world's largest advent calendar was built in 2007 at the St. Pancras train station in London. The massive calendar, which measured 232 feet and 11 inches tall, and 75 feet and 5 inches wide, celebrated the reopening of the station following a renovation.

A version of this story originally ran in 2010; it has been updated for 2021.