Advent calendar of Christmas treasures 2020
In the 21st century, Christmas seems to start as soon as Halloween is over. In the Western Church, Advent – from the Latin word Adventus, which signifies 'a coming' – starts on the Sunday closest to the feast of St Andrew on 30 November and ends with Christmas Eve on 24 December.
Advent has become a time of lights, decorations, parties and general merry-making in the countdown to Christmas. It's thought to have been celebrated by Christians since at least the 5th century, if not before, and 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.
To get you in the Christmas spirit, we've created our own Advent calendar comprised of 24 festive objects from our collections, one for each day of Advent. We’ve got robins and reindeer, winter wonderlands, holly and ivy and much more.
Days 1-5: Winter wonderlands
Day 1: Skating
English artist Anthony Devis painted this atmospheric view of Upton House, Warwickshire around 1784. Figures are skating on the frozen Temple Pool, while the house can be seen in the background.
Day 2: An icy landscape
There’s plenty to spot in this 17th-century landscape by Dutch artist Philips Wouwerman at Ascott Estate, Buckinghamshire. Skaters are enjoying some winter fun while well-wrapped-up travellers pass by on the road behind.
Day 3: A Christmas cartoon
This pair of 19th-century caricatures by George Hunt at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire, show figures braving a blizzard. One is entitled ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year in London’.
Day 4: A winter sunset
The tranquillity of a winter’s afternoon is captured in this 1841 oil painting by William Müller at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire. Figures walk along a frozen river, lit by the clear light of a winter sunset.
Day 5: A frozen river
This 17th-century winter scene is full of activity, with lots of people out on a frozen river. One group appear to be playing hockey. Painted by Dutch artist Aert van der Neer, it’s part of the collection at Tyntesfield, Bristol.
The origins of the Advent calendar
Today, most people experience Advent through cardboard calendars with 24 doors that hide images, sweets, or other treats, that mark 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.
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 imagination and soon became a new Christmas tradition.
Days 9-13: The nativity
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.
Day 10: The Angel Gabriel
The angel Gabriel holds a sceptre and is pointing to an inscribed scroll in this stained-glass panel at Wightwick Manor, West Midlands. Designed by Charles Kempe in 1875, it represents Gabriel’s visit to Mary.
Day 11: Baby Jesus
Evelyn De Morgan’s chalk and charcoal drawing of the nativity at Lanhydrock, Cornwall, hints at later events in the biblical story. The Christ Child is shown holding a chalice in one hand, with the other raised in blessing.
Day 11: The shepherds
The walls of the Octagon Temple at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire, are adorned with mosaics. They were made by Victorian designers Clayton and Bell. This one depicts the shepherds visiting the baby Jesus.
Day 13: The three kings
Opulence abounds in this Adoration of the Magi attributed to Hieronymus Bosch from the collection at Upton House, Warwickshire. The three kings are sumptuously dressed and their offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh are masterfully painted.
Days 17-21: Christmas creatures
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 decoration on the pietra dura panels in the Spanish Room at Kingston Lacy, Dorset.
Day 18: Camel
There is no mention in the Bible of the wise men arriving on camels, but these animals have long been linked to Christmas. This embroidery at Mompesson House, Wiltshire, depicts the Biblical story of Rebekah (which does involve camels).
Day 19: Donkey
Donkeys have become a key part of nativity plays. This biscuit-porcelain donkey is one of a pair made in China in the early 18th century and now in the collection at Polesden Lacy, Surrey.
Day 20: Goat
In Scandinavian countries, the Yule Goat is an important Christmas tradition and is often depicted in ornaments made of straw. This painting by Sir Edwin Landseer hangs at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire.
Day 21: Turkey
Hanging on the wall at Treasurer’s House, York, is this 17th-century embroidery. Animal and plant motifs were popular in English embroidery from 1590s and this features many, including a turkey near a peacock and a rather haughty-looking lion.
" We wish you all a very Happy Christmas Day full of joy and treasures of your own."