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2019’s novelty advent calendars: the New Statesman’s ultimate guide

Twenty-four-days of Vodka, waste-free beauty products, vegan treats... Advent calendars have come a long way from mere biblical pictures behind cardboard doors. The New Statesman team is here to guide you through December's most regimented form of conspicuous consumption. 

Pact Coffee Advent Calander, £39.95

With an election scheduled for 12 December, things aren't really feeling very Christmassy. Normally by now we'd be moaning non-stop about the proliferation of decorations, dodgy-winter wonderlands and prematurely released festive films. This year, politics has got in the way. But with 1 December just around the corner, it's finally time to embrace this special time of the year. And what better way to do that with a novelty advent calendar? 

Unlike most of the range of weird and not always so wonderful advent calendars in this roundup, the Pact Coffee calendar actually makes sense as something you open each morning in December. It’s a pretty simple affair, a rectangular box containing 25 numbered, mildly festive sachets of ground coffee. The coffee itself is pretty good, especially in terms of variety. However, as an unbearable coffee snob, I have to say that it doesn’t quite match up to freshly ground beans from my local social enterprise coffee roasters (yes, I live in Peckham).

An additional touch, which is very in tune with both modern concerns about the global economy and Pact’s own brand, are the short stories about the coffee growers behind the contents of each packet. It adds an emotional warming glow to go with the physical from your morning brew. It’s a solid and surprisingly sensible choice of advent calendar for any coffee lover.

Available from Pact

Jasper Jackson

Skylark spirits’ “24 Days of Rum” Advent Calendar, £80

Last year, I was delighted to review a tequila advent calendar, which was pretty useless in terms of providing a daily treat, but worked wonders as a pleasant way to accumulate shots of booze to take to festive gatherings. This year I volunteered for the Skylark Rum calendar with the intention of treating it in a more measured way. I was only half successful.

In small doses, the quality of the rums comes through. The two graceful tasting glasses that come with the calendar encourage a more restrained and thoughtful approach to sampling the liquids filling each slender 20cl bottle. I am no rum connoisseur but I could distinguish different characteristics between the drams. My flatmate with a finer palette was suitably impressed with the two bottles I offered him.

One flaw in the calendar is the box, which is artfully designed but not well designed. I failed to get either the glasses or more than a couple of the bottles out without tearing into the cardboard, and this was before I had actually drunk any of its contents. This was, of course, more of a problem when trying to sample the rums en masse after a night out.

That is, however, a minor quibble when the point of this, and other boozy calendars, is to give you an excuse to expand your drinking horizons during the booziest month of the year. In that, the Skylark calendar performs admirably.

Available from 24 Days of Rum

Jasper

Vodka Explorers Advent Calendar from Drinks by the Dram, £100

Unlike the calenders of Christmas past, the Explorers Advent Calendar went to the effort of actually supplying 24 different vodka flavours. However, it didn’t feel very Chirstmassy to drink 24 double shots of vodka to myself so I made the mistake of taking the calendar to a party. This was a bad decision for a few reasons. Getting it to the party was the first issue. Never before, it seems, has a heavier festive calendar been made. While this isn’t wholly the fault of the calendar company, points have been deducted for lack of portability.

When I did eventually make it to the party with my kilo of tiny vodkas I was set upon by jokes and ridicule. “Why have you bought 24 mini vodkas to a party?” people asked. Then, worse still, so-called friends took out the vodkas, sipped them and then discarded them half-empty around the party. As a result, I have limited knowledge of the alcohol quality, although I have since been advised that the Chile Green flavour was “very good”. The selection of flavours (from tea-infused to Mango) meant there was much variation to enjoy.

However, ignoring the spirit of the season, I advise this calendar be appreciated in the safety of your home, alone. Merry Christmas.

Available from Masters of Malt

Eleanor Peake

Approved Food Advent Beauty Box, £75.00

I don't want to be dramatic, but this calendar might be the best thing that’s ever happened to me.  When my editor said I was reviewing a beauty calendar, my expectations were low. This isn’t my first beauty calendar rodeo; I’ve been let down by teeny, tiny bottles before.

Not this time. This advent calendar is the brainchild of Sheffield-based Approved Food, which specialises in selling surplus and short-dated food – which would otherwise be deemed unsellable and thrown out retailers – at reduced prices. To call it an advent calendar is almost a stretch. There are no cutesy doors, no festive packaging. It is, quite literally, a cardboard box.

But following an unceremonious opening (attacking parcel tape with keys), you’ll be rewarded with 24 full-size products, from brands including Yves Saint Laurent, Nip and Tuck, Burt’s Bees, and Toni & Guy. Each has either damaged packaging, or is slightly past its best before date. But, and I cannot stress this enough, the actual products are no different to if you had picked them up full-price in Boots.

This calendar costs £75, and contains more than £200 worth of beauty products. Even I, a person utterly unable to do even basic maths, know that this is excellent value – and you should buy it ASAP.

Available from Approved Food, here

Indra Warnes

Pavé d'Affinois ‘Cheese Lovers’ advent calendar, £13

I must open with a confession: I did not open this advent calendar in the way that advent calendars are designed to be opened, one tiny door at a time. When a colleague complained of some bland soup, I opened the box at the side, pulling out all the cheeses at once, so she could choose which would best jazz up her lunch.

Quite frankly, it is a good job I did so. There are four types of cheese in this advent calendar. Four types of cheese, repeated over and over again, for 24 days. Every day the disappointment would have come afresh: “oh boy, I sure do hope there’s a new cheese today!!!! Oh, no. Washed rind again.”

To make matters worse, three of the cheeses are essentially the same: original, extra creamy, and washed rind. It is only the chilli-flavoured one that quite literally spices up this calendar. That said, the cheeses are indeed very creamy and delicious. But variety, as they say, is the spice of life, and in that, Pave D’affinois is sadly lacking.

Available in Asda.

(Ps. this cheese goes very well with soup. – Anoosh)

Indra

Jo & Seph's Gourmet Popcorn Advent Calendar, £25

One of the greatest culinary disappointments of my recent life occurred on an easyJet flight when, hungry and bored, I bought a packet of Jo & Seph’s double salted caramel popcorn. I ate the handful in the over-priced packet so quickly that my purchase cured neither my hunger nor my boredom. Since then, perhaps unfairly, I have nursed a grudge against these purveyors of one of my favourite snacks. I was thrilled, then, at the chance to right the wrong in 2019 by eating my way through a Jo & Seph’s advent calendar. Tastefully designed as a tasteful redbrick building with tasteful Christmas decorations, “the world’s first gourmet popcorn advent calendar” – as Jo & Seph’s describes it – held so much promise. Perhaps too much. What gourmet popcorn delights awaited me behind that first door? A flavour so gourmet I could not even fathom it? A classic caramel? No. It just happened to be orange chocolate, a flavour combination I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. They couldn’t have known, of course, but we were not off to the best start. The poor popcorn-themed pun on the back of that first little door rather rubbed my nose in the disappointment. “How does a popcorn dance?", the joke went. "It body POPS!”.

Onwards and upwards, I said to myself, things can only get better, and other phrases reminiscent of 1990s politics. Behind door number two was strawberries and cream, which was less Wimbledon and more Lucky Charms cereal. Still, my relief at not having to eat orange chocolate popcorn again was palpable. The accompanying joke was less corny (pardon the pun), too, but still not exactly funny: “Why couldn’t the man get out of the maize maze? He got CORN-ered!" The ensuing mini packets of popcorn took me on a rollercoaster taste ride through warm milk and jam (aka Raspberry Cheesecake), more strawberries and cream (literally, but also in a too-similarly flavoured white chocolate and strawberry variety), Nutrigrain bar (a.k.a toffee apple & cinnamon) and overwhelming artificial banana flavour (aka banoffee pie).

My undying and utterly genuine love of popcorn saw me through a few unforgivable issues. Toffee apple and cinnamon twice in a row? Get it together, Jo & Seph's. Only one salted caramel? The whole thing was cloyingly sweet. Waiting four days before a flavour I could truly get on board with? Caramel and Belgian chocolate, since you were asking. A seemingly endless line of terrible comedic riffs on the words corn, maize, and pop? I'm looking at you, day 24: "What did popcorn say to Jack in the Box? POP goes the weasel!" Well, at least they made the effort. But this wasn’t just an advent calendar, it was a vehicle for self-discovery. Not only did it help me confirm that I can definitely hold a grudge over something quite minor, but it also helped me accept myself as a popcorn purist. The novelty of fruity or caramelly chocolatey popcorn is fine, but give me a classic caramel (thank you, day 12) any day of the run-up to Christmas. 

Available from Jo & Seph's and a range of supermarkets.

Alona Ferber

Personalised 24 Days Of Vegan Sweet Treats Advent Box

As a lifelong vegetarian, jelly sweets – traditionally infused with gelatine, AKA bone juice – have rarely found their way into my diet. When they have, the experience has been one of covert, guilty guzzling: picture me resignedly accepting a Percy Pig on a long journey, or being seduced by free Haribo for undertaking somebody’s first-year psychology experiment at uni.

Picture my joy, then, when I was presented with an advent calendar containing 24 packets of death-free sweets. The Sweet Lounge vegan advent box is like a deluxe pick n mix stand, with every variation of sour, fizzy, fruity and chocolatey sweets. Fizzy cola bottles and fruit jellies are particular highlights, being relatively hard to come by without gelatine, but the sugar-coated almonds and dairy-free chocolate buttons break things up nicely.

Each day’s sweets are double-packed in a brown paper envelope and clear plastic. Sweet Lounge has reduced the amount of plastic since last year, and hopes to be plastic-free by next year, but it’s still a bit of a shame to have so much waste in a vegan calendar, especially as there are less than five individual sweets in each packet. That said, they come in a sturdy box with a lid that can be reused.

At nearly £40, this is an expensive way to eat sweets. But as a vegan or vegetarian, perhaps you’re willing to pay for that satisfying sourness so often denied you.

Available from Yumbles

Emily Bootle

Rum Advent Calendar from Drinks by the Dram, £149.95

You could buy at least three bottles of good rum for the £150 this calendar costs, and with slightly less than a full bottle inside (the 24 miniatures in this calendar add up, at 30ml each, to 720ml), the experience of trying lots of different rums comes at a premium. That said, if you can afford it, this is a great way to take a tour of what is perhaps the world's most diverse spirit, with rums from 15 countries and flavours that go from smokey molasses to vanilla and fruit. The Appleton Estate 25-year-old got glowing reviews from the testing panel I assembled. The Hoxton Banana, not so much.

Available from Masters of Malt

Will Dunn

Beer Hawk 2019 Advent Calendar: Craft Beer Advent-ure, £49.99

Because “craft beer” has become a by-word for gentrification, or twat, this advent calendar will probably draw derision from discerning punters. But it’s actually quite good. Unlike other booze calendars that the New Statesman team has guzzled over the years, it doesn’t have any repeats, which makes each window exciting and different. Obviously that doesn’t always translate into “nice”, however (looking at you, Day 6 “Stay Puft Irish Cream Marshmallow Porter”, Day 19 “Dark Arts Hazelnut Surreal Stout” and other dishonourable mentions). But most of the beers, which come from 14 different countries, are tasty if eccentric.

I couldn’t drink 24 days myself over a weekend, so my delighted boyfriend – who “never gets any perks” from my journalism – had to help me out. He says this calendar “zhuzhes up” the definition of beer (which he reminds the reader is “made from yeast-fermented malt flavoured with hops”), with its “flavours of blood orange, grapefruit and sour cherry – just remember not to ask what fruit infusions they have at your local”. I personally think it's high time the West Ham pub on the corner branched out, perhaps with Snakebite and black as a gateway.

Available from Beerhawk

Anoosh Chakelian

Draper Tools Advent Calendar, £35

I was excited about this because I like the idea of owning some tools. As with men of a certain age who decide they have acquired a new hobby like cycling, and purchase not just a bike but an entire wardrobe of Lycra, I now have not just a passing interest in DIY but a screwdriver head for every possible situation that life could throw at me.

The Draper Tools advent calendar comes with 48 different screwdriver heads, two rotating screwdrivers and a bottle opener. The bottle opener is incongruous, and would suggest the target market is either an incognito alcoholic (it’s not a bottle opener, it’s a tool!), or a person so obsessed with DIY that every implement must be tool-themed.  

Or perhaps it’s not a bottle opener at all. I wouldn’t know, because the advent calendar is devoid of instructions. As somebody unfamiliar with their contents, each window opened onto a mystery: I spent some time Googling “different types of screwdriver”; “screwdriver with rotating bits”, and “screwdriver that has a hole in the top”.

After opening three or four windows worth of screwdriver heads, the advent calendar started to feel repetitive. I gave the calendar a miss for a week, until it came to the day this review was due. The Christmas-themed cardboard doors that house each screwdriver head are difficult to prize apart, so I used the first screwdriver to rip into the advent calendar, revealing – you guessed it – 20 more screwdriver heads.

And this speaks to a broader problem with the Drapers Tools advent calendar. Unlike chocolate, tools aren’t particularly exciting. Nor are they built for the peepshow format of the advent season, with 24 days of the suspenseful slow reveal. “It’s the perfect gift for yourself, a family member or friend”, the calendar’s description reads online. Perhaps so, if they love opening cardboard windows with a screwdriver. 

Available from Draper Tools

Hettie O'Brien

Gluten Free Pork Crackling Advent Calendar, £17.50

The Snaffling Pig Co’s gluten-free flavoured pork scratching advent calendar, I am afraid to report, does not live up to the billing of the box it comes in. Rather than containing “awesome flavoured pork crackling”, it contains 25 bags of disappointment. Notionally, there are three flavours included – perfectly salted, low and slow BBQ, and salt ‘n’ vinegar – but in truth there’s little to tell them apart. The salt doesn’t stick to the scratchings well enough and the texture is all wrong. There is minimal crunch and next to no crackle. Each scratching is simply a thin, flaky casing around some fatty gloop.

Available from Snaffling Pig

Rohan Banerjee

Pig of Doom Pork Crackling Calendar, £17.50

When I think Christmas, I don’t think “pork scratchings”. I especially don’t think, “spicy pork scratchings”. I really especially don’t think, “pork scratchings that are so spicy that they burn your tongue every day in the run-up to Christmas day.”

I don’t deal with spice particularly well, but these are a joke. Upon tasting them, a New Statesman colleague ran to the bathroom, spat them out and washed out their mouth under the tap. My reaction was only more muted out of social embarrassment.

Then there’s the packaging. The thing I hate more than anything else in the world is companies trying to be pally and fun and overfamiliar and relatable and basically pretending they’re your jokey mate. If you’ve ever been on a Virgin train you’ll have heard a recorded message telling you not to flush “goldfish or your ex’s sweater” down the toilet. To me, that’s fingers down a blackboard. The Snaffling Pig Co pork scratching advent calendar is guilty of similar heinous offences: “Warning – this is hotter than the sun” on the nutritional information panel (ooooh, look at us, consumer, we watch Partridge too!); “It’s one million on the Scoville scale. Not the Phillip Schofield scale, the Scoville scale” (quite possibly the worst ever attempt at a quirky lil’ quip, because nobody has a clue what the Scoville scale is); and “store in a dry, cool place away from bright light and vegetarians” (haha vegetarians lol!)

Every day offers exactly the same inedible snack in exactly the same plain, white, not-Christmassy-at-all, Eastern Bloc-looking packet with the ominous text “Pig of Doom” printed on the side. This should have served as a warning that the product is designed entirely for the kind of bloke who orders a vindaloo to show off (for the bantz) but is dying inside every time they have a mouthful.

Overall: foul. Don’t try and go rogue. Stick to chocolate.

Available from Snaffling Pig

Jonathan Ball

Gourmet Marshmallow Advent Calendar, £17.50 with £3.75 for the marshmallow toaster

“Now you have something to write about,” said my boyfriend after my T-shirt became covered in flammable goo. He was especially right when I, moments later, forgot I was caked in something created to be set on fire and I leaned over a blazing pot of the stuff, nearly self-immolating. This was not my first rodeo with the Gourmet Marshmallow Calendar from the Naked Marshmallow Company (although it may sound that way) which gives you a deluxe, jumbo marshmallow every day of advent along with skewers and a flammable gel pot to roast each marshmallow over before eating. I had it last year and the flavours have overall improved – there was only one (Milk and Cookies) that wasn't actively delightful. That said, proceed at your own risk and only purchase if you're prepared to deal with an open flame every night. If you can cope with the responsibility, it's worth the money. 

Available from the Naked Marshmallow Co.

Sarah Manavis

Yankee Candle Home Inspiration Advent Calendar, £15

I live in a candle stan household in which we will, at any given time, have approximately eight of them in use. Along with candles, we love scents in our home, and have a very active aroma misting machine. We also adore Christmas, and are eager to start early every year.  So when I was handed the Yankee Candle Advent Calendar – full of smelly, festive delights – I was overjoyed at the prospect of 24 free candles, each giving off a different Christmas scent. However, what was actually behind each window was a heartbreaking disappointment – 24 nondescript red tealights with no indication of what each scent is.

On each window there is the same icon of a lit candle inside a box, with a huge "X" over it presumably encouraging you to not set the whole thing on fire, but this feels like a missed opportunity; a space that could have been used to give you a clue as to what each candle scent is supposed to be. Unless you are quite happy for every single tealight to be some version of cinnamon-y, vanilla-y, and sweet, I would suggest a different advent calendar or to just buy 24 Yankee Candles instead of paying rent.

Available from Robert Dyas

Sarah

Woofmas Advent Calender for dogs, £14.99

My dog, like most dogs, will eat literally anything. I have to claw a wet tissue out of her mouth at least once a week and she regularly consumes dirt. But, even though she isn't necessarily fussy, it is clear when she thinks that certain items are especially edible, and the Woofmas Advent Calendar is one of these cases. It's nice to be able to give your dog a special treat every day and mine was more keen on these treats than the average store-bought variety. She's on a diet (let her live!) so it's hard to fathom giving her a handful of treats every single day of December on top of her usual haul, but it's a fair amount for those dogs out there on the slimmer side. 

Sarah