I realise it’s a bit sad, especially when I don’t even have any grandchildren to use as an excuse, but I love Advent calendars! I don’t remember when I was first given one, but I was quite young and do remember loving them from that point onwards as they signalled the paced build up to Christmas in our house, and my Mum was good at ‘doing Christmas’. They were just a picture with little windows you had to find amongst the scene that you would open each day to show a smaller picture of some Christmas-related items like a wrapped gift, a sprig of holly, or toys – no chocolate reward, just the pleasure of the reveal. Favourite calendars would be saved and come out again in subsequent years until they became too dog-eared or the little window covers fell off. My Mum would still get one for me occasionally well into my teens and then when our children were born she was pleased to revive the custom.
My favourite calendars were where the main pictures was a scene of a snowy landscape, usually at night or in twilight (the more ‘holy’ versions with nativity scenes didn’t offer much attraction), with people skating, or carrying Christmas trees back to houses with windows brightly lit and glowing out across the snowy ground outside. Oh, and some glitter for frost effect. From here and now I can see that these were probably from, or influenced by, German or Scandinavian ‘folk art’. I still have two from her – one that she gave me in my late teens where the windows are like a clock face (below) set around the essential starlit Alpine village with distinctively Eastern European drawings inside the 24 windows.
The other I think is one she gave the boys when they were little – at first glance it is a rather twee scene of dolls, toy animals, festive fruits and biscuits in the wagons of a toy train set. It’s come out of a snow tunnel into a clearing in the snowy woods, and small woodland creatures look on from the edge of the clearing in wonder and surprise at the static toys in the train that’s driven by an anxious-looking elf. The style is charming, unsophisticated and has an old-fashioned 1950s air, printed in a tiny font at the bottom are the words, in English, ‘Made in West Germany’.
However, just beyond this brightly coloured tableau the wood recedes into very dark shadow, the scary sort of place to stay away from (just look at that section above the tunnel); it’s the deepest, darkest forest where you could meet a wolf, or a bear, or a witch – but it gives the syrupy scene a ‘frisson’ that transforms the whole effect into something quite magical – like those sinister scenes in Disney’s Snow White, or the Wind in the Willows story where the protagonists are fleeing through the Forest/Wild Wood and encounter all sorts of terrors. The same darkness can be seen in a good pantomime when the ‘baddie’ takes to the stage too; on reflection, I think there’s quite a lot of features that these calendars and the traditional panto share.
I made an advent calendar in 2002 (see photo at top of post and above) for friends and family who’d accompanied me on many visits to a stream-threaded wood near our home which I’d spent a year photographing in 1999. For the main picture I chose a photograph of a snowy-branched ancient oak tree in the middle of the woods that I seriously admired, and selected appropriately seasonal images to put behind each of the windows; these included records of some of our shared, fire-lit winter picnics. It was lovely to make, looked pretty good and was a pleasure to give as a gift – the recipients were delighted to have a calendar of our favourite playground in which they featured. But, it didn’t achieve the magic of the painted and imagined forests of the childhood versions.