Mike Keeler: Out of The Darkness Came a Pretty Bright Idea

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Mike Keeler

Hamburg is one tough town. Since it was established by Charlemagne in 808 as the northern outpost of the Holy Roman Empire, Hamburg has endured one brutal setback after another. It was destroyed by Vikings in 845 and again by Polish invaders in 1030. In 1350, more than half the population was killed by the Black Plague. But the city’s excellent position on the Elbe River near the North Sea allowed it grow to become a major seaport. By the 1800’s, Hamburg had become the third largest port in Europe. That is, until a large part of it was destroyed in a massive fire.

Into this rough-and-tumble city came a man of compassion. Johann Hinrich Wichern had studied theology in Berlin and, upon graduation, he dedicated his life to helping the new class of urban poor created by the Industrial Revolution. He traveled throughout Germany establishing hospitals, schools and rescue stations, before arriving in Hamburg. Appalled at the city’s conditions, he established the Rauhes Haus, an industrial institution for neglected boys, in 1833. About 100 students were housed here and given vocational training to help them make their way in the world.
With so many young folks gathered in one place, each December Wichern would be constantly pestered by the same question: “How many days until Christmas?” Wichern quickly realized he needed a visual aid. He was inspired by the medieval German tradition of placing an evergreen wreath on a wall to signify the persistence of life and the turning of the seasons. He took a large cart wheel, covered it with evergreens and laid it flat in the school’s common room. On each weekday, he would light a small red candle and place it on the circle. On Sundays, he would use a larger white candle. (The Christ Candle) In this way, for 24 days in December, he would work his way around the wreath, while his students visually anticipated the coming of Christmas.
The idea caught fire, and soon “advent wreaths” were blazing in churches each year throughout northern Germany. Folks starting embellishing the daily proceedings by adding treats and miniature figures to the wreath. By the 1900’s, the idea was being mass-produced in miniature; the first known printed “advent calendar” was made in Hamburg in 1902.
When millions of German Lutherans emigrated to America in the 1930’s, they brought the advent custom with them. It soon became a common Christmas tradition. Today, advent calendars can be found with the little doors filled with iconic pictures, tiny ornaments, or even sweets.
So, danke Johann, for getting the kids all amped up this month.
And for constantly reminding us how many shopping days we have left.
Mike Keeler