Long ago and far away, small children used to arm-wrestle their siblings for the privilege of opening a door in a cardboard Advent calendar. It was reward enough to find a picture of an angel or an awestruck donkey. How quaint that now seems. Because then Cadbury saw an opportunity and launched an alternative calendar, with little chocolate inducements. I mean, which would you choose, the donkey or a chocolate button? It was a no-brainer.
Childhood, which used to end around the time you were tall enough to reach a clocking-in machine, now drifts on and on. Grown men forget to leave home, women in their fifties buy colouring books, and we are all exhorted to cosset our inner infant. Treat yourself. Go on, you know you deserve it. One logical outcome of this creeping infantilisation is the Advent calendar for grown-ups containing, say, 24 tots of gin.
Advent — or, as it is now called, the Run-Up to the Big Day — was formerly a time for contemplation and perhaps a bit of patient, watchful abstinence. Even if you didn’t subscribe to the story of the Nativity, you understood that a feast ceases to be a feast if it is preceded by weeks of indulgence. But no more.
I mention the 24 gins of Advent, but it is a random choice. It could be teabags or beard-grooming oils. Or gourmet popcorn, an oxymoron if ever there was one. Socks, even. No fewer than 25 pairs of. That Advent ends at midnight on Christmas Eve is, I suppose, a minor quibble. You can never have too many socks.
How about some slime? Twenty-four little tubs of it, for hours of creative Advent fun and, perhaps, stress relief. Speaking of which, the Best Sex of Your Life Advent calendar promises 24 sex toys to spice up December, although you do have to supply your own batteries.
The one that has really caught my eye this year is the pork scratchings Advent calendar, also available as a twin-pack so you don’t have to share. Because, as we wait for the light and hope of Christmas, what could be uglier than a family member helping themselves to your fave bag of scratchings?
Of course, theologically we’re on thin ice with those pork products, as was Greggs, the bakery chain, with its sausage roll in a manger a couple of years ago, Mary and Joseph having presumably been observant Jews an’ all. But I understand the word Advent is now merely a marketing wheeze and I’m just whistling Dixie. Heaven’s sakes, there are now eight-day Hanukkah ‘advent’ calendars, coming soon to a John Lewis near you. Let no bandwagon be too doctrinaire to jump on. Or too stupid.
Which brings me to dogs. Pet Advent calendars are now an established thing. I presume cats regard them with the disdain they deserve, and I can see that hamsters might enjoy recycling the cardboard packing, but dogs? Advent is about waiting, something taught in puppy-training classes and then, like school trigonometry, promptly forgotten. What self-respecting dog is going to hang about for Baby Jesus when, with a bit of cunning, he can snarf down all 24 treats at one sitting without them touching the sides?
The toothpaste is out of the tube. I accept there is no going back. I do wonder, though, if the word Advent could be reclaimed, ring-fenced with a kind of appellation d’origine contrôlée, like champagne or Stilton. As in: by all means indulge yourself with 24 festive marshmallow surprises if that’s what floats your December boat, but call it an Advent calendar at your peril.
What is wrong with us that the year now has to be one long circus? Halloween elides into Christmas which elides into Easter, but with intervening comfort stops for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Black Friday. How beguiled we are by the word ‘treat’. Because you’re worth it, the adverts whisper. There is no downtime. And if we grown-ups can’t bear to wait for anything empty-handed, what chance is there for our children?
I have saved the most egregious till last, although this is an endlessly shifting market and readers with sharper eyes than mine may have spotted something worse. I refer to the Belgian chocolate vulvas Advent calendar, white, dark and milk. I research these things so that you don’t have to.
Times change, certainly. It’s been a grim year and some of us may need an incentive to get out of bed on dark December mornings. I’m no Puritan and I’m partial to pork scratchings myself. I ask only that we pause to consider whether a treat a day, be it booze or food or socks, is worthy of the label Advent.