At some point in the 90s, my mother softened, coming to the belated realisation that we had suffered enough through various homemade advent calendars (one based on the picture board from the TV show A Question of Sport) and tatty cardboard ones that were used year after year, the doors always standing slightly ajar. The year we got chocolate advent calendars was the year December became the month of sweetened vegetable fats before breakfast and limited self-restraint. Advent calendars, we thought, could not get any better.
But we hadn’t factored in the relentless march of human progress and/or capitalism, and so here we are, in 2017, when you can buy advent calendars filled with treats, from expensive candles and perfume to miniature bottles of prosecco or chunks of cheese. Where people will queue for hours to spend £175 on a calendar filled with mini beauty products. Or consider spending £10,000 on one filled with rare whisky.
This is the year the “luxury” advent calendar has gone truly mainstream. At the higher end, Fortnum & Mason is selling a wooden calendar filled with sweets and chocolate (£125), The Pip Stop is selling a calendar filled with 20cl bottles of wine (£125) and Edinburgh Gin has one with 25 miniatures (£100). But you can also get a pork scratchings calendar from Debenhams, and Asda has a cheese one. You can buy treat calendars for pets, while German tools company Wera (tagline: “Be a tool rebel”) has created a calendar in which you gradually assemble a screwdriver set. You can also buy a sex toys calendar (£120 from Lovehoney), because what could be more festive than BDSM restraints and a selection of butt plugs? High-street shops including Primark and Superdrug have created their own advent calendars, as have supermarkets Aldi and Iceland.
We forget that it’s only relatively recently that chocolate advent calendars became the norm, proving human civilisation really is evolving at warp speed. The first appeared in 1958, but it was in 1971 that Cadbury launched its chocolate advent calendar in the UK. It produced them again in 1972, and then between 1978 and 1980. There were more in 1986, then another inexplicable gap until 1993, when they finally became a mainstay. (Cadbury wasn’t, of course, the only chocolate advent calendar producer.)
Now it is the luxury or novelty advent calendar that is gaining ground. Some of these, of course, are for children (Lego has one; so does Crayola crayons), but most high-end calendars are squarely aimed at adults with disposable cash. “As the celebration of Christmas and the festive period has grown bigger and busier, people are increasingly looking for ways to treat themselves,” says Jack Duckett, senior consumer lifestyle analyst at Mintel. “The idea of treating oneself is already at the heart of the luxury goods market, so operators have been well-placed to tap into the advent calendar concept. The beauty sector has, arguably, been the leading innovator, but increasingly the concept is working for food and drink brands beyond chocolate and confectionery. In many respects these calendars have moved away from marking the days till Christmas and become another side of the demand for a treat each day.” Modern adults – I am extrapolating here – are basically like dogs or toddlers.
The modern luxury advent calendar goes back to at least 2010, when the department store Selfridges launched its beauty calendar with the cosmetics giant L’Oréal, filled with samples of products from its stable of brands, including Lancôme fragrance and Kiehl’s body cream. (That was also the year Porsche launched a $1m advent calendar, giving away a yacht, a kitchen and a watch among other fripperies.) The Selfridges one retailed for a rather modest – by today’s standards – £60, and sold out (2017’s version, already out of stock, was £120).
This year, a huge number of beauty and fragrance brands, both high-end and high-street, including Jo Malone, Diptyque, Boots No7 and the Body Shop, have advent calendars, and so do most department stores, including Harrods, which launched its first beauty calendar this year, priced at £250. Are they worth it? “Retailers tend to be better at them than individual brands because they have the buying and negotiating power [with brands] to produce really high-value advent calendars,” says Guardian beauty columnist Sali Hughes. “At the other end of the spectrum you have people taking the piss. The Zoella calendar is £50 and to my eyes seems to contain about three quids’ worth of utter tat.” This week, the YouTube star was criticised by parents pestered into buying her advent calendar for their children, which featured 12 cheap gifts including a bauble, a few stickers and a pen. “What a load of rubbish! I wouldn’t even give this to someone I hate!” wrote one reviewer on the Boots website (the retailer has now cut the price to £25).
Hughes praises the Liberty beauty advent calendar as being “incredible value” (it went on sale for £175, but claims to have products worth £500). Is it just a marketing ploy? “It certainly is that with retailers,” says Hughes. “They get the sample sizes incredibly cheap and then it brings people through the door to try the full sizes.” For brands, such as the makeup artist Charlotte Tilbury, who has her own range of cosmetics and has produced a calendar, “it’s less a marketing opportunity and more a chance to sell a very high-value item in and of itself”.
The beauty calendars, in particular, have become successful because they work so well on social media. “Instead of a beauty blogger posting a product once,” says Hughes, “with an advent calendar they are posting pictures every day for 12 or 25 days, so, from a PR point of view, that’s powerful – you’re getting a lot of content out of one product.”
Liberty’s beauty calendar launched in 2012, and people queued for hours to get one when it went on sale in October this year. It sold out online within a day and a half, with the last few bought in store within three days (last year, it took more than three weeks to sell out). For 2017, the store doubled the number of calendars to 10,000. “We were confident, but we did [wonder], is it going to have the same reaction as it did last year?” says beauty buyer Emily Soulsby. “It blew away our expectations.” The calendar takes the store’s beauty team a year to put together, pitching to brands to encourage them to give Liberty an exclusive product. “Now there’s a lot of competition in the market for the advent calendars,” says Soulsby. It is, she adds, “a real curated edit”.
Paula Wilson, a bathroom showroom manager from Cumbria, has bought a Liberty beauty advent calendar for two years running. “I’ve already raided quite a lot of stuff out of it. I couldn’t wait.” She loves it, she says, because “it’s amazing value for money. I’ve got a normal job and I couldn’t justify spending the money some of these [full-size products] cost. It gives you the chance to try something that might be £50 or £60.” Last year, she even sold the empty advent calendar box on eBay for £70. People are already selling this year’s advent calendar on the auction site for as much as £450.
Some of the 2017 calendars, surely, must be PR stunts. Could the £24 Greggs advent calendar, filled with tokens to be swapped for 24 days’ worth of baked savoury goods, be anything other than a mildly amusing way to cash in? (Greggs had to apologise on Tuesday for replacing baby Jesus with a sausage roll in a manger in one of its publicity photographs.) Or the £10,000 whisky one, of which only 10 are being created?
Generating interest at Christmas, a time when every brand wants to get coverage, is difficult, says the PR expert Mark Borkowski. “For a cynical old git like me, you can see the roots of all the stories [in the papers about advent calendars],” he says. “It’s very difficult to keep your client happy around Christmas, with the rest of the noise. Clients and PR agencies are in bubbles; they think something is successful because there’s a snippet in the Metro.” The slew of luxury advent calendars this year is “an opportunity for people in PR to extend their creativity and persuade their clients how clever they are.” For good measure, Borkowski takes a swipe at millennials, not long moved on from their childhood Christmas countdowns, for whom he thinks these advent calendars are “being reinvented”. What a Scrooge. He laughs.
All this is a way away from the cardboard advent calendars many of us remember from childhood. Even these are a relatively recent addition to Christmas, thought to have originated in 19th-century Germany, where families marked off the days until Christmas Eve, or hung up small pictures at home. The cardboard calendars seem to have been driven by families creating their own traditions, rather than being part of a religious ritual.
Perhaps a true advent calendar should start on the Sunday nearest to St Andrew’s Day, which means that, in some years, it could fall in November – a comforting thought to anyone tempted to open their calendar early. The first printed calendars were available in Germany at the turn of the 20th century, with one manufacturer, Gerhard Lang, inspired by the calendar his mother had made him as a child. By the 1930s, cardboard was being rationed and his company closed. The Nazis produced their own advent “calendar” – a pamphlet with pages to be turned each day, with images including swastikas and Russian tanks being blown up.
After the war, Germany’s advent calendars returned to more traditional themes. In his living room, Richard Sellmer created a calendar based on a German winter town scene and in 1946 he was printing them at his newly founded company in Stuttgart. In the 50s, they became more mass-produced and affordable, and Sellmer’s calendars were exported to the US, sold for charity and promoted by President Dwight Eisenhower. The company, which is now run by Sellmer’s grandsons, Oliver and Frank, still makes traditional advent calendars (although they also sell ones filled with chocolates). “We lived directly over the company, so my brother and I were around advent calendars the whole year,” says Oliver, who started working for the company for pocket money after school.
The company’s most popular advent calendar is still the first one Sellmer made, called Little Town. “We also have a lot of Victorian-style advent calendars that are top-sellers.” These include snow scenes, and one with an old-fashioned children’s carousel. Most of its cardboard calendars cost between £4.50 and £8. How does he feel about the avalanche of luxury or novelty calendars? The longevity and tradition of his company will see them through, he says. “The advent calendar is, and always will be, a German tradition. All those other ones are very expensive and would never be competitors to our products.”
If you think the trend for luxury calendars is yet another sign of the hideous mass commercialism of Christmas, you will be joining a tradition that goes back to the Victorian period. “Christmas has got more commercial and has become a consumerist event, but that’s because the whole of society has,” says Martin Johnes, reader in history at Swansea University and author of Christmas and the British: A Modern History. “It’s a reflection on how our wider society has changed, rather than how the festival itself has changed.”
Christmas was always a time of excess, and from the late-Victorian period, people were encouraged to shop. “Spending money on yourself and on other people has been a common trend since then and that’s always led to complaints about how the meaning of Christmas has been lost,” says Johnes. “People have felt uncomfortable with the idea of shopping and seeing Christmas as something money could be made out of, but Christmas wouldn’t have become the big festival it did without that commercial driver.” So really, as you are crunching your 24th bag of pork scratchings, or lighting a miniature Diptyque candle, or you have done nearly three weeks’ straight with a daily gin miniature, you should be thanked for keeping Christmas alive.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010