The first ever advent calendar, in 1851, was a series of devotional images designed to remind its owner of the true, sacred meaning of Christmas. And so was my first ever advent calendar, in 1998.
A form of child cruelty so obscure that not many know of it, "religious advent calendars" reveal, behind each door, not a tasty tree-shaped hunk of Cadbury's that's weirdly gone white on the bottom, but an image of a Jesus, a shepherd or – if you're lucky – a particularly husky donkey.
It's this childhood depravation that means I have watched in awe over the last decade as the advent calendar market has exploded. From the £250 Harrods Beauty Calendar to the £5 Kellogg’s Cereal Bar Calendar, there are now 24 doors for everyone and everything.
But why? How did this boom happen? And is there a single brand that can't capitalise on the countdown to baby Jesus's birth? To find out, I did what no man has ever done before (and what no man without £922.74 can hope to do after) and made an entire advent calendar out of advent calendars.
The Advent Calendar of Advent Calendars is simple: one day, one whole calendar; Bob's your uncle, and he's coming round in 22 days to complain about Romanians.
(NB: I know you've already written the comment – you wrote the comment before you clicked the article, based on the headline alone – but obviously I donated the unopened products to a woman's shelter and a food bank. Also, for deadline purposes, the 24 days of advent took place on one November afternoon, and that's the way you're going to like it.)
DAY ONE: LOVEHONEY BEST SEX OF YOUR LIFE COUPLE'S SEX TOY ADVENT CALENDAR, £125
I know Christmas is secular now, but is it this secular? Is it secular enough for a see-through silicone "penis extender" with textured ribs? It's hard to see how this isn't an insult to God.
"We first launched the calendar two years ago because there was such a growth in the range of products featured in these type of calendars, and we felt, 'Why should sex toys be left out?'" says a Lovehoney spokesperson.
The sex toy calendar – complete with a hog tie, two thongs, a feather tickler, butt plugs and things I daren't repeat because I'm a firm believer in Pascal's Wager – is surely the inevitable culmination of the calendar trend.
"We did this because it was what our customers wanted," the spokesperson says.
DAY TWO: MERRY FITMAS PROTEIN ADVENT CALENDAR, £4.95
There's no peace-on-earth-goodwill-to-all-men way to say that the MuscleFood advent calendar – which "contains 50 percent less sugar than traditional chocolate treats" – tastes like it contains 100 percent less sugar than traditional chocolate treats.
That said, swole is the goal. "So far, the calendar has been a hit with our health-conscious customers," says Joshua Gooding, head of product development at MuscleFood. Remarkably, this protein calendar (which, in fairness, is "rich in vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants, whilst being high in protein and vegan friendly") is just one of FOUR currently on the market, the most expensive of which costs 40 of the queen's pounds. Forty! Just eat an egg.
DAYS THREE & FOUR: BODY SHOP'S 25 DAYS OF THE ENCHANTED ULTIMATE ADVENT CALENDAR, £99 & THE ASOS FACE + BODY ADVENT CALENDAR, £55
The beauty industry is patient zero of the luxury advent calendar trend, as make-up calendars were among the first non-chocolate offerings, starting with Maybelline's in 2009, before L'Oreal damned us all by designing a calendar for Selfridges in the heady 2010s. Now, nearly every beauty brand has their own calendar (the "Enchanted Ultimate" is just one of three that The Body Shop sells).
"The idea of self-treating in the lead-up to Christmas is one which has evolved," explains ASOS Senior Face and Beauty Body Buyer, Katrina Fulluck. "Beauty Advent calendars have been gaining huge momentum over the past few years and don't seem to be going anywhere."
Despite this, many have a reputation for including cheap, sample-size products (RIP Zoella, long live Zoe Sugg). While the Clinique and Mac products in the ASOS calendar are teeny, tiny tubes, there’s otherwise a nice range of big branded items. The Body Shop bucks the trend with 14 full sized products, including body scrubs, shower gels and hand creams – but then, at £99, it should.
Beauty calendars expose the strangest part of the new advent frenzy: namely that, thanks to the unstoppable rise of both #selfcare and Instagram influencers, we’re actually buying these calendars for ourselves. You might as well spit on Tiny Tim.
DAY FIVE: DRINKS BY THE DRAM TEQUILA ADVENT CALENDAR, £149.95
Close on the heels of beauty is alcohol (profound!), the second largest novelty advent calendar market. Yet what began as something-that-sort-of-made-sense (whisky, gin), quickly turned into something-that-made-not-very-much-sense (wine, beer), before becoming complete nonsense (welcome, tequila). The original premise of these calendars was a drink-a-day, but who really wants to pay £150 to neck a miniature bottle of tequila every night in December? People, is the answer! People do!
DAY SIX: MCVITIE'S ADVENT CALENDAR, £5
If we're judging these calendars on how much they make sense as calendars (which we are, keep up) then the McVitie's calendar surely takes the confectionary wafer. A cheaper alternative amid the madness of luxury cals, this hearty box offers you a Gold Bar, a Club or a Penguin a day. We all need to eat lunch, don't we? This makes sense to me. It's finally something that makes sense.
DAY SEVEN: JUNIQE A POSTER A DAY, £59.95
If we're judging these calendars on how much they make sense as calendars (which, as we've established, we are) then who in the name of our precious lord and saviour wants, needs or has room for a new poster every single day?
Juniqe sell four different poster advent calendars, each with a value of £250. Lea Lange, CEO and founder of the company, explains the appeal. In an official statement she said: "Our advent calendars help customers make their houses their homes by bringing art into their everyday lives: Art. Everywhere."
DAY EIGHT: YANKEE CANDLE WREATH ADVENT CALENDAR, £24.99
I'm not going to argue with candle advent calendars, because I already upset my mum by opening with the sex toy bit. Candles are good, especially when they come in: Crackling Wood Fire™, Sparkling Cinnamon™ and Icy Blue Spruce™.
DAY NINE: POPABALL 12 DAYS OF PIMP YOUR PROSECCO, £29.99
This was the calendar I most wanted to be like, "Oh look, capitalism laid bare, writhing, screaming for us to end it at last," but am actually more like, "Wow, OK, have my begrudging respect."
Firstly, "12 days of Christmas" calendars make sense, and I think – check with a priest –
are more in line with Jesus's teachings. You get 11 pots of "fruity bursting bubbles" in this calendar, which are ten more pots of fruity bursting bubbles than anyone could possibly need. But I respect it? I really respect it?
Explaining the post-Christmas format, a PopABall spokesperson said: "Because the run up to Christmas is a busy time for people, our customers often don't have the time to relax and enjoy pimping their drinks." They really said that. I didn’t make it up.
DAY TEN: KELLOGG'S CEREAL BAR ADVENT CALENDAR, £5
There is no intrinsic morality. While the rules and regulations we impose upon society make sense as mechanisms to maintain order, there is no such thing, truly, as right or wrong. Why then, as individuals subject to so many laws, rules and social norms, would we impose further limits on ourselves? Religion is one. Staying late at work is another. But there’s nothing worse than people who only eat chocolate for breakfast during advent. You can eat chocolate for breakfast every day of the year! Why live in the shackles you have forged for yourself?
But anyway, turns out there is something worse. That something is the person who takes the pre-ordained chocolate-for-breakfast-month and decides no! No! I will eat cereal-based goods for breakfast, like every other godforsaken month, instead. If you buy this calendar, I regret to inform you that you – a German in this scenario – would have signed up to the Nazi Party in 1933. You are a lamb. You are a mindless fool.
DAY ELEVEN: CHEESE ADVENT CALENDAR, £8-£10
Some people don’t like chocolate, lots of people like cheese, so this actually makes sense as a branding, marketing and eating exercise. First envisioned in 2015, this is where the novelty calendar market should have begun and ended. But as we now know, it didn't.
DAY TWELVE: BIG CHILLI ADVENT CALENDAR, £29.95
Is this it? Is this capitalism laid bare, writhing, screaming for us to end it at last? Has anyone ever needed a different chilli every day?
According to Nichola Lando, director at Sous Chef: yes. "Whilst promoting the calendar across social media this year, we've had more responses from people who actually cooked with it last year. 'This was my favourite gift last Christmas, and if someone doesn’t buy it for me I'll certainly get it myself!' and so on," she says.
This calendar is surely proof that there isn't a single brand unable to capitalise on the premium advent trend. God bless 'em, every one.
DAY THIRTEEN: LEGO® STAR WARS™ ADVENT CALENDAR, £19.99
Back in the very early-2000s, Lego and Playmobil were some of the first brands to launch non-chocolate calendars, but they don’t really count here because – unlike Prosecco glitter and cinnamon tea lights – they were actually designed for children.
DAYS FOURTEEN AND FIFTEEN: BIRD & BLEND TEA CO. TEA ADVENT CALENDAR, £36; AND THE WORLD'S FIRST MATCHA ADVENT CALENDAR, £65
We live in an age of unprecedented twee, but at least a tea calendar makes sense in that you can feasibly follow the one-a-day model. Bird & Blend's regular tea offering works out at about 60p a teabag, which is reasonable, but things get a little "slow down there, buddy" with the £65 matcha calendar. It's incredibly hard to imagine that anyone out there loves matcha this much. Is this all a front for something else? Have I uncovered an advent mafia? That said, the mince pie flavour is very nice.
DAY SIXTEEN: AIR WICK SCENTED CANDLE ADVENT CALENDAR, £4.99
They say that when God closes a door, he opens a window – but you won’t be needing any more windows after prising open the 24 doors of this Air Wick cal! The air is fresh and pure. The toilet smells like berries!
DAY SEVENTEEN: YUMBLES GIANT POPCORN CALENDAR, £25
Apart from the disconcertingly futuristic plain popcorn packaging, this is a respectable calendar. You only get four or five bits of popcorn in a bag, but that makes this calendar the perfect cure for the decadence we've seen on show thus far. If you were a child meeting up with a chocolatier who wanted to murder you to make a point about greed, you’d be safe with this one.
DAY EIGHTEEN: THE VIRGIN WINES ADVENT CALENDAR, £79.99
I’m reliably informed by Virgin Wines Gifts Business General Manager, Andy Potts, that 4,000 people preordered this calendar in the first ten days of its release. I'm committing that to writing for future historians.
DAY NINETEEN: HOLLAND & BARRETT 25 DAYS OF CLEANER BEAUTY CALENDAR, £70
Upsettingly, the Holland & Barrett advent calendar isn’t 24 days of the iron and calcium supplements that my Pringle-crumb-covered body desperately needs. It is, however, full of eco-friendly and ethical skincare products, meaning H&B get points for being the only brand to take the impending end of days seriously.
We can see here how the advent calendar trend is actually a succubus, feeding off other late-2000s trends. Whether you’re obsessed with the gym, enjoy being ethical and stuff, or want to show off your make-up collection on Instagram, there's a calendar to capitalise on it.
DAY TWENTY: MOONPIG’S TALKING TABLES PEEL THE SPROUT CHRISTMAS ADVENT CALENDAR, £12
They say millennials are easily offended, and I finally get what they mean, because I think this un-wrappable tissue paper sprout is abhorrent. Each day, you unravel one layer of sprout to reveal a Christmas cracker joke, hat or plastic bug. The final prize (spoilers) is a red yo-yo. The planet is literally on its deathbed! This tiny pink plastic lobster has contributed significantly to the destruction of our natural resources, and for what? I'll tell you what: it’s weirdly satisfying to chew on.
DAYS TWENTY-ONE & TWENTY-TWO: JELLY BELLY DECORATING THE TREE ADVENT CALENDAR, £15 & BEANBOOZLED NAUGHTY OR NICE? ADVENT CALENDAR, £15
As a lover of gourmet beans, I can't argue with Jelly Belly’s first calendar: standard beans in standard packets, very nice. JB’s second calendar, however, is a "fun" "game" where you might get bad-tasting beans, enticingly named Stinky Socks, Barf, Skunk and Dead Fish.
You can’t even give them to a food bank, unless you want Charles Dickens to rise from the dead and write a story about how shit you are.
DAY TWENTY-THREE: PLAMIL SO FREE WHITE CHOC ADVENT CALENDAR, £3.99
This vegan white chocolate calendar tastes like eating lumps of butter, which is good.
DAY TWENTY-FOUR: THE NAKED MARSHMALLOW CO ADVENT CALENDAR, £15
A toast-able marshmallow calendar really should’ve been the final nail in capitalism’s coffin; the one piece of inarguable evidence that it is time to rise up or be damned. And yet… the gingerbread one tastes really, really great. They give you this can of jelly that you set on fire to toast the ’mallows on. If you didn't pay attention in year nine science because your teacher liked to throw a pink plastic pig at students before asking them a question, rendering learning impossible, then you might blow on the flame to put it out, making it really big and cool. What’s not to love?
What next for calendars? What next for Jesus himself? In the last ten years we have evolved from those come-back-to-our-website-every-day-for-a-voucher advent calendars to large, heavy, expensive premium calendars that cunningly make you pay for things you’d never buy individually. How can brands get bigger, do better?
There is only one way forward, and it is The Advent Calendar of Advent Calendars. Order yours today.