The Advent calendar's advent

Ever wonder how those Christmastime candy-trove calendars got started?

Advent calendars trace back to 19th-century Germany, when Protestant Christian families would draw chalk lines on doors or walls to mark each day in December until Christmas Eve. But commercial entrepreneurs soon replaced the ephemeral limestone with cardboard calendars. The first Advent calendar was made in 1851.

(The Advent, or "coming toward" in Latin, refers to the four weeks leading up to the coming of Christ Jesus.)

More than half a century later, a German named Gerhard Lang produced the first Advent calendar to feature windows that opened up to picture surprises.

But during World War II, cardboard was rationed and advent calendars were banned.

In 1946, Richard Sellmer kickstarted the industry in Germany with a factory in his living room. His famed product soon spread to the United States and then around the world.

Today, the Richard Sellmer company still sells Advent calendars - about a million a year. Other manufacturers have added their own iterations. Behind some ersatz windows you'll find chocolates, toys, ornaments - even a diamond-encrusted fountain pen.

People with about $700,000 to spare can bid for the just-released Advent calendar by penmaker Montblanc. The miniature chalet replica has 24 illuminated windows that reveal extravagant gifts, culminating with Montblanc's most expensive fountain pen.

But other windows have opened up to a different kind of gift. A London woman writes in last week's The Daily Telegraph that her great aunt, who was living in Germany in 1938, took a peek behind that year's Dec. 24 window. Instead of the usual Bethlehem stable scene, she found a picture of Hitler. Offended and frightened, she fled to England. She later reflected that the calendar probably saved her life - for it seemed doubtful that a widow of a Jew in Germany would have survived Hitler's purges.

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