Wednesday, November 28, 2001

An annual treat for many youngsters used to be the yearly gift of an Advent calendar, featuring scenes from the Christmas story.

Even children who were not particularly religious knew that when the calendar appeared, Christmas and presents were just four weeks away. Advent, the preparatory church season emphasizing penitence and patience while awaiting Jesus’ birth, begins Sunday.

But today’s Advent calendars are a different creature altogether, succumbing to what many Christians consider the secularization of the Christmas celebration.

A trip to one store in an Albuquerque, N.M., mall turned up 16 Advent calendars. One was of a quasi-religious nature, showing angels hovering over a Christmas tree. The other calendars portrayed scenes that included Santa Claus and snowmen, Santa Claus driving his sleigh, and a family of happy-looking and festive bears.

A Barnes & Noble bookstore in Falls Church had one religious Advent calendar showing a manger scene from the Cleveland Museum of Art on the lower shelf of a Christmas book display in the middle of the store. A similar display closer to the entrance showed a secularized calendar: “Counting to Christmas,” a collection of tiny pockets containing 24 board books recounting the adventures of Christmas mice.

A nearby Borders had several Advent calendars, none of them religious. Instead, the “Christmas Countdown” calendars came with pictures of children decorating a Christmas tree, a Victorian Christmas scene, stylized letters of the alphabet, themes from “The Nutcracker” and Beatrix Potter books showing dressed-up bunnies.

Advent, according to the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, is a Latin word meaning “the coming” and begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas. It can be as short as 21 days or as long as 28.

“During the season of Advent,” the encyclopedia notes, “Christians across the world prepare for the celebration of the coming of the Lord into the world through the birth of his Son Jesus Christ. Advent is a time to celebrate light in the midst of darkness,” hence the traditional Advent wreath of three purple candles and one pink one, the latter to symbolize Mary as the mother of Jesus.

Patrick Scully, director of communications for the New York-based Catholic League, says his organization has been trying to combat the secularization of Christmas and other religious holidays for several years.

“What we are seeing is the neutering of Christmas and Easter in everything from calendars to commercial establishments,” he said. “Advent calendars now feature Teddy Bears instead of religious imagery.

“Christmas has suffered a direct hit from this secularization,” he added, as its meaning has been “gutted. Kwanzaa, for instance, is a strictly cultural celebration while Christmas has its heritage strictly in religious terms. Yet we see symbolism of Kwanzaa while a Nativity scene may mean a battle with the ACLU.”

To find a religiously oriented Advent calendar, one can go to the Printery House in Conception, Mo., whose catalog has a whole page of such calendars, loaded with Scriptures and Christian symbols. This catalog, which is produced by a Roman Catholic religious order, also includes a “Jesse tree,” which portrays Jesus as “from the stump of Jesse,” an Old Testament passage predicting a coming Messiah.

Martin Saunders, a reporter and Web site editor working for Premier Radio, a Christian radio station based in London, notes that in Great Britain, Christmas seems to be more about trees and presents than Jesus’ birth.

“Although after the events of September 11th, people will undoubtedly focus more on the family, on togetherness and on love this Christmas, they’ll still be missing the point,” he said. “Christmas is about the beginning of the most important story in the history of the world. Simply engaging in a bit of festive hugging does not amount to understanding the true meaning of the festival.”

This apparent secularization of Christmas has been the subject of discussion on Internet bulletin boards. One posting on an America Online board, titled “Holidays on AOL,” read, “The big retail store I work at [is] decorated [with] all Santas and snowmen. There is not one Nativity scene set up anywhere. You know: The REAL reason we celebrate Christmas. I guess the store does not want to offend any non-Christian shoppers.”

Another post read, “Yes, there is a Santa Claus. He exists in the world of generosity and in the hearts of man. In these dark times we often know there is a Santa Claus who lifts men from the shadows of oppression and into good.”

A quick survey of the Internet and various shopping catalogs does not portray Advent as a clearly Christian religious season marking the beginning of the ecclesiastical year. The Holiday 2001 Gift Guide for skirts the religious implications of the season but does include a silver-plated fortune cookie and a snow-globe candy dish. It also offers, among other things, a gourmet Hanukkah basket, a Hanukkah bear and candy box, and a Star of David charm necklace.

Ken Young, the director of communications for, said the company made no deliberate attempt to exclude any group.

Rather, he said, “Philosophically, we’re trying to help people connect to the others in their lives who are important to them.”

A visit to the Harry and David gourmet foods Web site,, found gifts of a mostly secular orientation, although a gift box was titled the “New Eight Nights of Hanukkah.” It was promoted as “traditional toys and kosher treats, in a new gift box for the Festival of Lights.”

The only Advent calendar was described thus: “Countdown to Christmas: They’ll get another new toy or treat for each day of December. The finest you’ll see anywhere, with interesting pop-out windowsþ each of which opens to reveal a different surprise. Tiny toys and treats of every description, one for each day of the Advent season.”

The Christmas section of contains all secular items except a star basket of sweets, containing “a collection of heavenly goodies.”

A search for flowers and gifts under the Christmas section of the Web site produced 37 results, none of them related to Advent or Christmas. Selections included a bird tree trimmer set, a velvet holiday pillow with bells and “Santa’s Christmas Tree Countdown Calendar.”

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