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Advent calendar of Christmas treasures

Two caricatures side by side from the collection in the Caricature Room at Calke Abbey, both depicting people braving a blizzard. In the first picture is a women with an umbrella, while the second picture is a man holding onto his hat, while blizzards blow around both of them.
Two wintry caricatures in the collection at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

In the Western Church, Advent starts on the Sunday closest to the feast of St Andrew on 30 November and ends with Christmas Eve on 24 December. Learn about the history of Advent calendars and discover 24 festive objects from the collections in our care with our own Advent calendar.

Celebrating Advent

Advent is a time of lights, decorations, parties and general merry-making in the countdown to Christmas. It's thought that the origin of Advent has been celebrated by Christians since at least the 5th century, if not before. Advent was originally a period of fasting, prayer and preparation between the feast of St Martin on 11 November and the feast of Christ’s birth on 25 December.

The origins of the Advent calendar

Today, many people celebrate Advent with a cardboard Advent calendar, with 24 doors that hide images, chocolates or other sweet treats, each marking the countdown from 1 December to Christmas Eve. Advent candles are also still used by some households and in places of worship, with a section of the candle burned for every day of Advent.

Like a number of Christmas traditions in the English speaking world, such as festive trees, the origins of these calendars seem to have emerged in 19th-century Germany, where many Protestants would burn a candle for each day of Advent.

The first Advent calendars

The history of Advent calendars as we know them today gained popularity in Germany from around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The most popular origin story today is that in the late 1800s, the mother of a German boy called Gerhardt Lang taped a sweet to a piece of cardboard for each day of advent.

As an adult, Lang set up a printing company with a friend called Reichhold and, inspired by his mother’s Advent treats, the pair printed the first Advent calendar in 1908. Although their business closed in the 1930s, the modern Advent calendar had caught the public's imagination and soon became a new Christmas tradition.

Days 1–5: Winter wonderlands

For the first days of our Advent calendar, we've pulled together some of the wintry highlights in the many landscape paintings we care for.

Oil painting on canvas, Upton House from the South by Anthony Devis, circa 1784, depicting a winter's day with the house seen from across the valley; four men are skating on the lake in the foreground and a horseman accompanied by some hounds is riding in the park beyond; fir trees line either side of the lake and a small classical temple is at the far end.
Upton House from the South by Anthony Devis | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Day 1: Skating

English artist Anthony Devis painted this atmospheric view of Upton House in Warwickshire around 1784. Figures are skating on the frozen Temple Pool, while the house can be seen in the background.

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Days 6–8: Father Christmas

Father Christmas still visits many of the places in our care every Christmas. Discover some objects of the collection that might remind you of him, from antique sleighs to symbols of reindeer.

A small antique sleigh on display at Arlington Court and National Trust Carriage Museum, red in colour with a black seat and curved legs
A sleigh in the collection at Arlington Court and National Trust Carriage Museum | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Day 6: Sleighs

The legend of Father Christmas and his sleigh pulled by reindeer grew out of the story of St Nicholas, a 4th-century Greek bishop famed for giving gifts to the poor. Arlington Court’s Carriage Museum in Devon houses this 19th-century sleigh, known as an Albany Cutter. It was named after the US city where it was first made.

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Days 9–13: The nativity

Christmas is the story of the conception and birth of Jesus. Here are works of art and objects in our collections that depict the nativity.

A close-up image of a triptych despicting The Madonna and Child by Francescuccio Ghissi (active 1359–1395).
The Madonna and Child by Francescuccio Ghissi | © National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

Day 9: The Virgin Mary

Golden stars surround the Virgin Mary in this sumptuous 14th-century triptych at Polesden Lacey, Surrey. The humility of her pose contrasts with the opulence of her blue and gold headdress.

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Days 14–16: Festive nature as decorative design

From holly to mistletoe, plants are used in many ways at Christmastime.

Close-up of Elizabethan 'Nonesuch' chest inlaid with holly and bog oak in the Long Gallery at Packwood House.
The Elizabethan 'Nonesuch' chest in the collaction at Packwood House | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Day 14: Holly

Holly isn't just used to deck the halls at Christmas. The light colour of holly wood has made it an ideal material to use in marquetry to create decorative scenes and motifs. This Elizabethan 'Nonesuch' chest, in the Long Gallery at Packwood House in Warwickshire, is inlaid with holly and bog oak.

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Days 17–21: Christmas creatures

There are some creatures that we often think of at this time of year, especially if you celebrate Christmas dinner with the traditional turkey. But what about camels and goats? Discover the animals that hold festive traditions.

Detail of one of Florentine pietra dura panels of the cabinet in the Spanish Room at Kingston Lacy, depicting winter. In this scene, a robin is seen among foliage.
Detail of a Florentine pietra dura panel; in the Spanish Room at Kingston Lacy | © National Trust Images

Day 17: Robin

No one quite knows why robins became a symbol of Christmas, although the link dates back to at least the Victorian era. This robin is part of the collection on the pietra dura panels in the Spanish Room at Kingston Lacy, Dorset.

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Days 22–24: The gifts of the three kings

The gifts of the three kings are as well known as the nativity itself. But where you can find gold, frankincense and myrrh at our places?

A MAN AND HIS WIFE by Master of the St Barbara Legend at Upton House
A Man and His Wife by Master of the Barbara Legend, 1470–1499 | © Angelo Hornak

Day 22: Gold

Gold was a symbol of devotion and heavenly riches during the Renaissance. Gold leaf, created by beating gold into an extremely thin sheet, was used in this 15th-century double portrait from the collection at Upton House, Warwickshire, of a husband and wife in prayer.

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Landscape mural of Italian seaport showing a harbour scene in the dining room by Rex Whistler at Plas Newydd House & Gardens, Anglesey

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