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Advent calendars are raking it in while counting it down

Forget the tiny chocolates. Holiday advent calendars are now full of fancy jams, beauty products and pricey treats for everyone, even the dog.

(Anna Lefkowitz/The Washington Post)
8 min

We all deserve a special little treat just for being alive every day. Which is why Stephanie Ruby always looks forward to her December morning ritual. For the first 24 days of the month, she will wake up, carefully perforate a window of her Bonne Maman advent calendar and remove a 1¾-inch-tall jar of jam, which she might spread on toast or an English muffin.

And then she will head directly to her group chat of fellow jamheads — it’s titled “Ladies Marmalade,” because of course it is — who are all opening the same jars, from the same calendar, to discuss the daily flavor, which might be apricot-bergamot, or mirabelle plum with linden blossom, or pineapple-yuzu.

“Last year there was a star rating vote that we did, and this year, I think we’re doing a Google form,” she says. “It’s gotten out of control.”

Listen. “Being a human being can be a nightmare sometimes,” says Ruby, a 37-year-old content strategist who lives outside Philadelphia. So, after revealing the jam of the day, she will next open her Walker’s Shortbread advent calendar — another little serotonin boost. And after that, she’ll get a daily baked good from her Flour Power advent calendar.

“Every day was like a fun little surprise,” she says. “As adults, there’s not a lot of surprise in our lives.”

Perhaps the only surprise is how dramatically the market for advent calendars has expanded in recent years. What used to be a simple box of delayed-gratification chocolates to help children count down to Santa has become a vast selection of luxury goods encompassing high-end makeup, beer and wine, jewelry, “healing” crystals, dog treats, Ariana Grande perfume, and yes, even NFTs.

Driven by social media “unboxing” videos, some of the calendars like Bonne Maman’s, now in its sixth year, have attracted a cult following. A spokeswoman for the brand says that virality and scarcity — only about 6,000 advent calendars were produced the first year, a number that has doubled with every subsequent Christmas — have helped build the hype. “There’s countdown for people getting ready to open their first jar,” she says. That’s right, a countdown to a countdown. Some people save them for after New Year’s and celebrate “Jamuary.”

And driven by marketers, the concept itself has expanded into new territory, encompassing Halloween, Easter and — wait a minute, there are Hanukkah advent calendars?

Liturgically, advent is the period of preparation for Christmas, beginning four Sundays before Dec. 25. It can be a serious time for reflection, prayer and even fasting. The earliest advent calendars from 19th-century Germany offered up a Bible verse each day. The 20th-century commercialization of Christmas brought mass-produced calendars for children and enhanced the tradition with chocolate.

So how did we get here? A Dior advent calendar costs $650. An Alo Yoga advent calendar ($200) looks minimalist and austere, with none of the holiday trimmings. A Bonne et Filou advent calendar for dogs ($70) has 24 treats for a fur baby who has no concept of Christmas whatsoever and for whom the kitchen garbage can is its own year-round advent calendar.

Holiday marketing is kind of like a goldfish in a tank. “If there’s an opportunity to grow a market, it will be grown,” says Leigh Eric Schmidt, a Washington University of St. Louis religion professor and the author of “Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays.” “It’s commercially useful for the season to be extended.”

The term “advent,” which can also mean “a coming into being or use,” has seemingly shed its religious meaning.

“The word doesn’t have that kind of religious resonance for lots of American Christians to begin with,” says Schmidt, making it “a little bit easier for it to just move into other holidays.

Which brings us to Hanukkah. The Christmasification of the relatively minor Jewish holiday has been well-documented, and Hanukkah advent calendars are just another item on that long list.

“Taking Christian items connected to Christian rituals and branding them as Hanukkah is not appropriate,” says Rabbi Yael Buechler, who has a running Instagram series critiquing Hanukkah merch at big-box stores. “We don’t count down to Hanukkah.” (There is a Jewish holiday that involves a countdown, but it’s Shavuot, which takes place in the spring. It does not involve a daily present.)

But not all of the Hanukkah calendars count down to the holiday, and not all of them are branded as advent calendars. Some are simply eight little presents to open for each night of Hanukkah, and that’s actually not a bad idea, says Samira Mehta, an associate professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the author of “Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in America.”

“It’s not a straight-up assimilative attempt,” she says. Rather, it’s a “potentially problematic, but also potentially kind of fun expression of late capitalism.”

Because that’s what this is really about: Getting people to buy a product that will get them to buy more products. “Having sampled new products in the run up to the holiday, consumers are likely to follow up on their new treats post holiday,” suggests market research firm Mintel — which also notes that companies can call them “anticipation calendars” to turn every occasion into a prolonged opportunity for multiple gifts, “from graduations to birthdays and anniversaries.”

Content creator Julie Kay, 37, has worked her way through about a dozen advent calendars so far this year — and it’s why she thinks some of the makeup and fragrance advent calendars are a scam.

“It feels like they just put everything in there that didn’t sell,” she says. Kay opens them on TikTok, pulling out a month’s worth of surprises in one quick video — a subcategory within the social media “unboxing” genre. Some people might consider it a spoiler. She considers it a public service.

“People can see, like, what you actually get and if it’s worth their money,” she says. Makeup companies offer her complimentary calendars, but those are often dependent on a good review, so she spends her own money to ensure she is free to critique them. Signs of a good advent calendar are “full-size products,” she says — MAC Cosmetics is her favorite so far this year — and bad ones often use sample-size products, duplicates or products that got bad reviews on beauty blogs as filler. (“Somebody tell me they did not hit me with a motel bar soap,” she exclaims upon opening Day 3 of the Victoria’s Secret Bombshell advent calendar, which she deemed “one of the worst” in terms of value.)

She’s even noticed a particular rhythm. “The first product is something really nice, one of the better products,” she says, followed by a few days of duds and then another nice item — a roller coaster of little surprises that repeats itself through to the 25th.

People who don’t even buy the calendars are nonetheless interested in her videos of their contents. She began unboxing her calendars in September to get ahead of the curve.

“Advent calendars always pay for themselves” — even the pricey $300-plus ones, she says — “because they always get millions of views.”

Buying yourself a gift — really, 25 little gifts — has gone from selfish to self-care, a catchall term that originated in medicine but can now often be used to describe spending money on personal pleasures. The pressure associated with preparing for the holidays can compound that desire.

Enter the “10 Days of Magical Self-Care” advent calendar ($100), featuring drawers of “spiritual wellness tools” including a “‘Chill Out’ crystal trio” of amethyst, aquamarine and blue lace agate. Or the Pinch Provisions self-care advent calendar ($55), which includes moisturizing socks, a candle and “a mirror to view yourself with kindness.” Even Target has a self-care advent calendar (pimple patches, Curel lotion — nothing too exciting).

December is “a stressful time, especially for students, because it’s exams,” says Kallan Larsen, 26, a PhD student in Chapel Hill, N.C., who bought the Bonne Maman calendar for herself and a dog-treat advent calendar for her Australian shepherd, Laska. “And so it was just kind of an excuse to treat myself, to sound cliche.”

A special little treat, “something to be excited to get out of bed for.” Why stop at 24 days? Why not 365?

“I know I’m being marketed to, to buy this thing,” says Larsen, “but I’m not mad about it.”


An earlier version of this article stated that Bonne Maman’s advent calendar is in its fifth year. It's actually in its sixth. This version has been corrected.