Poor or posh, by the time you read this in late November your favourite Advent calendar is probably already sold out. I know mine is.
From luxury candles by Diptyque to Trader Joe’s treats calendar for cats, from tea companies to Lego, the Advent calendar has become the clever marketer’s favourite festive format – a playful delivery system that promotes product sampling. Or just plain buzz.
This year, for example, Tiffany & Co. offers an Advent calendar that, for US$112,000, rings in the season. Designed to look like the brand’s Fifth Avenue flagship store, the calendar stands about 1¼-metres tall and each cubbie boasts jewellery and trinkets presented in Tiffany’s signature robin’s egg blue box. The format is a perfect exercise in delayed gratification.
In his history of holiday traditions, Christmas Days, author Derek McCormack traces the format back to 19th-century Germany, where parents glued wibbles, or candy, to paper as a countdown for children. By the early 1900s, the DIY versions had been commercialized into professionally printed chromolithograph calendars.
Initially, Bible verses and inspirational mottos were mixed with images as the tradition spread across Europe. The breakout moment into the mainstream came in 1946, when a Stuttgart, Germany-based entrepreneur named Richard Sellmer produced a die-cut paper calendar called Little Town. It became popular with Americans G.I.s and helped popularize the phenomenon overseas.
In the religious calendar, Advent begins on the first Sunday of the season, but now that secular circles have adopted the ritual, observance begins on Dec. 1. Being born on that day means I’ve always had a special affection for Advent calendars – they’re a frequent birthday present. For a long time, the best I could hope for was waxy chocolates, but in recent years the selection has grown to include Canadian short-story collections curated by Hingston & Olsen and beautifully packaged daily doses of obscure small-batch bourbon.
The appeal of 24 consecutive concealed doors has been adopted by brands whose artfully designed windows – or carved doors, drawers, felt pockets – conceal everything from chocolates to socks. Beauty and grooming brands especially like to capitalize on the persuasive format for consumers to try before they buy. Acqua di Parma, Charlotte Tilbury, Jo Malone – it’s now easier to name a cosmetics company that doesn’t make an Advent calendar than to list all the ones that do.
“Beauty ones really did pave the way,” says Jen Meredith, global brand manager for Drinks by the Dram, the British company that brought the first multibrand spirits-filled Advent calendar to market in 2012 and livened up the specialty Advent category. The wax-sealed dram (30-millilitre) bottles have become a favourite way for aficionados to sample hard-to-get small-batch anejo and rarities such as a 21-year-old Clynelish (the overall portfolio now counts more than 5,000 spirits).
Not unlike those elves in the North Pole, four full-time Drinks by the Dram buyers work year-round sourcing spirits, speaking to distilleries and brand owners around the world to get them interested in the format, Meredith explains, though it’s not usually a hard sell. “Because it’s actually a really great opportunity to the brands to use our true sampler format. If 1,000 people on a single day of the year open up one of these whiskys,” she adds, it’s high visibility – and they’re more likely to purchase a full bottle later.
“I think nothing we do is ever done the simple way, it’s always go big or go home,” she says with a laugh, before explaining that this holiday season the company offers a dizzying 36 different calendars in thematic variants that include Irish, Scotch or Japanese whisky, bourbon, tequila, and gin.
At the very top end, Drinks by the Dram’s Very Old & Rare Advent calendar arrives in a handmade leather satchel, housed in a walnut or macassar ebony box handcrafted by an English cabinet maker. Each costs £9,999 ($17,000) and because it includes scarce decants from legendary Glenglassaugh, Glenfarclas and Auchentoshan batches that are older than I am (there’s a dram from one bottle that’s worth more than £13,000), no more than 10 are produced annually.
Two more approachable versions are available in Canada, in Ontario through the LCBO, including the company’s most popular offering this year, made in collaboration with That Boutique-Y Gin Co. (the other is whisky, $99.95-$199.95).
“You don’t know what you’re going to get, and that’s an exciting and joyful experience in the buildup to the big day,” Meredith says. “Why should all the fun be for children?”
That hits on why the Advent calendar is about the calculus of pleasure and not necessarily commensurate with what’s behind the perforated door.
Anticipation is a key counterpoint to spoiler culture as it exists today, explains Richard Greene, professor of political science and philosophy at Weber State University and author of the lively new pop culture study Spoiler Alert! “There’s something I think is grounding in that – it’s good for our mental health. It’s a way of extracting a lot more joy.”
Assuming, of course, that the recipient is disciplined and observes the one-a-day format, a nominal mystery meted out at a controlled pace satisfies something lacking in today’s cultural metabolism.
In short, it’s nice to have things to look forward to. It “has something to do with a need to plan for good experiences,” Greene says. “Modern life is chaotic and hectic with all sorts of stuff coming at us all the time. You set aside time to know you’re going to have a good experience, to have this kind of ritual and experience the anticipation itself. Like planning a vacation months in advance.”
With bad products, the anticipation can even exceed the surprise, Greene says. “If I’m really excited to see what the next treat is, I might actually enjoy the experience of waiting more than the thing itself.”
Unless, perhaps, you’re one of the lucky few whose Advent calendar includes a dram of 60-year-old Glenfarclas.