Advent calendar of Christmas treasures 2021

The Oak Room dressed up for Christmas

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 that the origin of Advent has 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 Christmas 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. You can also discover what an Advent calendar is and the history of Advent calendars, or be inspired to create your own Christmas calendar.

The origins of the Advent calendar

Today, the Advent calendar tradition means that 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.

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 imagination and soon became a new Christmas tradition.

Days 1-5: Winter wonderlands

Days 6-8: Father Christmas

Sleigh at the Carriage Museum, Arlington Court

Day 6: Sleigh

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.

Fireplace with carved heads

Day 7: Chimneys

Chimneys are Santa's traditional mode of entry. Dyffryn House in Wales has several elaborate fireplaces, including this alabaster example. They were installed after John Cory bought Dyffryn Estate in 1891. He commissioned local architect E.A. Lansdowne to remodel the house in a mix of French Renaissance and English Baroque styles.

Scandinavian bone spoon carved with shaped handle and etched with reindeer on outside of bowl

Day 8: Reindeer

The association of reindeer with Father Christmas began with Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas.’ This Scandinavian carved bone spoon at Snowshill Manor in Gloucestershire, has a reindeer etched on it.

Days 9-13: The nativity

" We wish you all a very Happy Christmas Day full of joy and treasures of your own."

Days 14-16: Festive nature as decorative design

Close-up of Elizabethan `Nonsuch' chest inlaid with holly and bog oak in the Long Gallery at Packwood House, Warwickshire

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 'Nonsuch' chest, in the Long Gallery at Packwood House, Warwickshire, is inlaid with holly and bog oak.

Bacchante statue Mount Stewart

Day 15: Ivy

Ivy is not only associated with Christmas – it is also the symbol for Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. An ivy crown is worn by one of his maiden followers, or ‘bacchante’, in this sculpture by Lawrence MacDonald at Mount Stewart, County Down.

Close-up of a beaded purse at Fenton House, London

Day 16: Mistletoe

The first written reference to kissing under the mistletoe dates from the 1820s but it has been used for centuries as a decorative motif. Here, seed pearls are used to represent the mistletoe’s distinctive white berries in this sumptuously bedecked purse from 1610 at Fenton House, London.

Days 17-21: Christmas creatures

Days 22-24: The gifts of the three kings

A Man and his Wife by Master of the Barbara Legend

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.

Cloisonne incense burner with floral motifs

Day 23: Frankincense

Frankincense, an aromatic tree resin, is used in incense. This 18th-century cloisonné tripod incense burner at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire was made in China. Cloisonné (French for ‘partition’) is the technique of using fine metal filaments to create a design of enclosed cells that are then filled with colourful glass enamel.

Mahogany double-sided apothecary's cabinet in box form with 30+ separate components

Day 24: Myrrh

Myrrh, also a tree resin, has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties and has been used to treat many different ailments. This apothecary’s cabinet from Calke Abbey, Derbyshire, has one drawer labelled ‘powder myrrh’.