My childhood Advent calendar came from Joe’s Candy Cottage, which was a stone’s throw from the Manhattan Beach pier. A tiny shop redolent of melting chocolate twelve months a year, in December Joe’s was even more irresistible to local kids, who hung around and admired the stocking stuffers imported from Europe in the glass vitrines and a menagerie of Steiff toys arranged on high shelves.
That calendar from Joe’s was discarded long ago, but it planted in my head the perfect idea of its kind–a snowy landscape with toys, woodland animals, stars, sweets and cunningly concealed flaps numbered from one to twenty-four, all lightly dusted with a veil of silver glitter.
The simple paper artifact of my childhood is now another Christmas commodity that blows into the marketplace every year in a flurry of sizes, shapes, and materials incorporating different combinations of holiday motifs. Some designs forgo the little flaps that open to reveal pictures of treats to come for wooden drawers, which ask to be filled with goodies by Mom or Dad. Instant gratification trumps the cultivation of patience yet again.
The Cotsen collection’s cache of what I assumed would be a selection of “traditional” European Advent calendars had more to offer than schmaltz where naked pink cherubs turn out sugary treats in a celestial bakery. Instead of rolling out variations on the same old theme, some graphic designers and illustrators were more than happy to experiment with the format.
The envelope of Das Christkind im Walde illustrated in frosty blues promises the pleasure of creating a charming tableau between December 6th and the 24th. The backdrop is a section of wintry forest with squirrels, rabbits and crows. There are no flaps on the calendar, just numbers. Each number has a corresponding tab on the back.
As more tabs are turned during the passage of December, the scene fills up with angels carrying stars and lanterns. On the twenty-third, St. Nicolas pops up in the lower right hand corner and the Christ child takes the center stage on Christmas Eve. Josef Mauder (1884-1969), the famous Bavarian illustrator of Jugendstil children’s books, designed an Advent calendar that required the child to do quite a bit more than find the flap with the day’s date on it, open it, and long for the thing pictured in the window.
Each day, the child had to select the correct illustrated sticker and paste it in its proper space on the right page. The Cotsen copy has been completed, so I am guessing there was an envelope containing the set of stickers, now discarded. Each sticker tells the story of one stage of Peter and Liesel’s search for the Christ Child between December first and the twenty-fourth. On the third day of the month, for example, they meet the Heinzelmann and ask for directions. They see St. Nicholas on the fourth of December while trying to find the fifth tree in the sixth row the Heinzelmann told them to look for.
Last but not least, an audio-Advent calendar that predates the ones on the Internet by several decades. Glade Jul, Dejlige Jul is one of those completely mad hybrids that ensures that life will never be dull. The twenty-four flaps of the Advent calendar have been arranged around the circumference of a 45 r.p.m. record on laminated cardboard (ours is missing seven flaps).One way of playing with this object might be for the child to open the flaps and look at the loot in the windows, then to play the sound recording. As the record spins, the children on the flaps appear to dance around the Christmas tree in the center, making Glade Jul is a relative of a phenatistoscope, or precursor of a GIF animation of a short continuous loop. This novelty, with its parallel titles in five languages was probably intended for distribution in America, England and the Continent.
So don’t let the snow melt under your feet in the forest! There are still nineteen flaps to open on whatever the Advent calendar you fancy!