Interactive Advent Calendars

My childhood Advent calendar came from Joe’s Candy Cottage on the hill that sloped down to the Manhattan Beach pier.  A tiny shop that smelled deliciously of melting chocolate twelve months a year, Joe’s was even more irresistible to local kids in December, when they dropped by to admire the stocking stuffers imported from Europe in the glass vitrines and a menagerie of Steiff toys on the high shelves.

That calendar from Joe’s was discarded long ago, but it is still  my idea of  the perfect one –a snowy landscape with toys, woodland animals, stars, sweets and cunningly concealed flaps numbered from one to twenty-four,the whole surface lightly dusted with a veil of silver glitter.

That paper artifact is now another commodity that blows into the Christmas 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  for wooden drawers, which Mom and Dad have to fill with goodies.  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 naked pink cherubs turning 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 publisher’s envelope for the Advent calendar, Das Christkind im Walde, ca. 1930. Cotsen 36764.

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.

The numbered tabs on the back of the calendar. There is also a mostly illegible property stamp for a school in Prague.

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.

The well-worn cover of the third printing of Josef Mauder’s Muenchener Weihnachts-Kalendar, which probably dates around 1925. Cotsen 23215.

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 designers create for children. 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).

Glade Jul, dejlige Jul = Santa Notte = Voici Noel = Silent Night, holy Night = Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. [Copenhagen?]: L. Levinson Jr. Ltd., copyright [1965?] Cotsen 6488.

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 the Advent calendar!

St. Nicholas Reimagined by the Avantgarde

There was a demand for equal time for St. Nicholas this week to balance the previous coverage on Santa.  This Sunday is the feast of St. Nicholas, so it’s the time to pay tribute to Western civilization’s other major dispenser of gifts to the naughty and nice.

Santa Claus is not exactly a style icon in that schlumfpy red suit and elf hat trimmed with fur. Okay, the suit makes sense for anyone whose job description requires him to ride around the world in an open sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer on a freezing winter night.  Warm, comfortable, and casual, but not hot by any stretch of any fashionista’s imagination…

And Saint Nicholas?  Once upon a time he didn’t think fashion mattered, as those tattersall check pants under the bishop’s robe scream loud and clear.  Not a good look, as Heidi Klumm would say.   A one-off Fendi sack might help.  And Knecht Ruprecht so needs to lose those boots.


Felix Timmermans, St. Nicholas in Trouble. Translated from the German by Amy Flashner. Illustrated by Else Wenz-Vietor (New York: Harper & Brothers, ca. 1932) Cotsen 14312.

St. Nicholas got it through his head that he had to get serious about the brand and hire some image consulting firms.  Here are two options from the Wiener Werkstatte that include makeovers for Krampus.  Pretty sharp accessories!


Dita Moser. Kalendar 1908 (Vienna: Weiner Werkstatte, 1907) Cotsen 52825.

diveky st nicholas krampus

St. Nicholas and Krampus post card by Jozsef von Diveky ca. 1915. Reproduced courtesy of Getty Images.

Then there is Lou Loeber’s radically stripped down ensemble, with Zwaert Pieter rockin’  stripes, from Nieuwe Beelding.   Glad the choice isn’t up to me.  All three work!


S. Franke. Gouden vlinders. Illustrated by Lou Loeber (Blaricum: de Waelburgh, 1927) Cotsen 6085.