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The New Statesman’s ultimate guide to 2017’s novelty advent calendars

What is it really like to consume 24 days’ worth of beard oil, Haribo, or pork scratchings? 

Once upon a time, advent calendars were simple. You’d open up a door to find a picture of a shepherd or – if you were lucky enough not to have a Catholic mother – a piece of Cadburys shaped like Santas hat. Sure, you could get milk chocolate calendars and you could get white chocolate calendars, and oh boy, you could get fancy calendars and you could get cheap calendars – but that was about it. Nowadays, things have changed. Nearly every niche interest you could imagine has an accompanying calendar, yet one question rings out like the church bells on Christmas morn. ARE THEY ANY GOOD? 

Cocoa Plus Protein Advent Calendar, £7.98

Can you get hashtag swole just by eating protein-infused advent calendar chocolate that you heard about through shame-following an Instagram fitness blogger? No, you cannot. But this chocolate is pretty good nonetheless. Pleasantly dark and just the right level of sweetness – you wouldn’t be able to tell it had any agenda other than being chocolate. It’s apparently also lower in sugar, but doesn’t taste it. Each piece has 1.4g of protein, which seeing as they only weigh 5g is quite impressive. I could have done without the mini-workout suggestions behind some of the doors (Jesus would probably have something to say about the trivialisation of Christmas with unnecessary cardio) but if there’s a market out there for that, can we really judge? And it includes that elusive pinnacle of advent calendar glory rarely found at this price point – a 25th door. Lizzie Palmer

The Snaffling Pig Co: Pork Crackling Advent Calendar, £17.50 

As someone who backed herself to eat a packet of pork scratchings every morning for 24 days, I’d warn potential punters that this is more of a challenge than you’d think. The little pouches of pig are as delicious and crunchy as the classic coarse-haired knuckle you’d find in any pub that has yet to serve wasabi peas, but that’s part of the problem. They’re so moreish it’s difficult to stop eating them and you end up feeling sick. I eventually had to admit defeat to the mighty gods of salt and fat and hand them round to my colleagues – the “MERRY PIGGIN’ CHRISTMAS” message on the front attracted some more than others. I think I’ve alienated all the vegetarians. I also think I might be growing a snout. Anoosh Chakelian 

Christmas Beard Oil Advent Calendar, £29.99

Ah, late capitalism. Whether it’s a birthday card for yourself from your dog, frozen potato hashtags, or 24 different flavours of beard oil, if you want it, you can exchange money for it. Not having a beard myself I couldn’t try this out, beyond marvelling at the fact that someone came up with this many scents for a product most people don’t really know exists (having said that, one of the 24 is “unscented”.) But luckily I live with someone who does, and agreed surprisingly enthusiastically to step in and take one for the team. He said the following:

“Beard oil is important during winter – to moisturise the chin against the cold air and provide strength and suppleness for when drunk people at Christmas parties pull on your beard to ask if you are the real Santa. It can be a trying time. Some regular and subtle scents (such as lavender and mahogany) coupled with more esoteric offerings (driftwood, black coffee and, somehow, rainforest.) Very good portions despite the compact size of the calendar itself – more than covered my big bushy beard on a daily basis.” Lizzie Palmer & Bob Saull

Drinks by the Dram Whisky Advent Calendar, £149.95

So long as you like whisky and haven’t turned into the kind of bore who refuses to drink anything but Islay, everything about this calendar is perfect. Inside a rather unremarkable cardboard box hide 24 mini whisky bottles, each one sealed with black wax. They are the perfect size to slip into a pocket, give to a friend, or knock back on a train. As well as Scotch, there is Irish whiskey and bourbon, and a chance to try some of the smaller distilleries you will not find in the airport duty-free.

What I learned from this calendar is that (a) I like whisky, but also (b) I am too busy or ill to drink it on a daily basis, even in cute little bottles that you can sip discreetly in a cinema. Struck down with a cold, I didn’t want to sacrifice a single malt to the cause of hot toddies, and so I drank herbal tea instead. It’s not really acceptable to BYOW to a pub. One tragic night, I was rushing to dinner and a bottle slipped out of my bag and smashed.

Then there is the price, which comes to £6.24 a bottle, which may or may not be a good deal depending on how much you value 50 year old blended Scotch. Unless you plan to rearrange every December night out around sipping a small bottle of whisky, you might be better going for the Scrooge option and buying a bottle of Talisker, making 24 notches with a permanent marker and taking a swig each day.

The best use of this calendar, especially given the high price tag, would be to think of it as an annual calendar instead. Good whisky should be enjoyed slowly, and the same goes for a whisky advent calendar. I gave up trying to have a dram a day, and instead decided to savour each one. There’s plenty more trains to come. Julia Rampen 

Wax Lyrical Night Before Christmas Advent Calendar, £24

Before you’ve even opened your first door, this calendar lets off a powerful Christmas scent that is even more warm and loving than the annual one (1) hug your dad gives you on Christmas Day. The beautifully-packaged and impressively normal-sized calendar comes with a nice holder for the candles, but there are only four scents. This means that after 5 December, your morning door-opening ritual will get a little bit boring. Still, the candles look and smell amazing – a tealight a day keeps unholy stinks at bay. Amelia Tait

Haribo Advent Calendar, £4.99

Let me just start by saying I am not one of those millennials who is desperate to relive childhood. The very idea of an adult bouncy castle or a ball pit bar makes me want to burn down civilisation and start again. So please believe me when I say I was delighted by this advent calendar. It’s impractically huge, there is a proper bag of sweets behind every door (or some Maoam, or a giant gummy, one of which weighs 20 ENGLISH GRAMS) and the artwork is so colourful and detailed it looks like something out of Where’s Wally? The sweets aren’t even plain old Starmix (no disrespect, but advent is nothing if not a time to leave your comfort zone.) I would have lost my mind for this as a child and I like it hardly any less as an adult. If our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ bought himself an advent calendar it would be this one. Lizzie 

Prosecco Ho Ho Ho Advent Calendar, £20

If you’re going to have festive cheeky midweekies with the girls – no husbands allowed!! – then this is the advent calendar to take with you. It sparkles with little stars. It has curly silver writing on it. It comes in pink packaging. It’s definitely the prosecco of the mid-range Christmas gift world. The chocolates are tasty, handmade from dark and white Belgian chocolate, patterned with snowflakes and clinking flutes. £20 is a bit steep though, at a time of year when the price of actual prosecco takes a merry tumble. Anoosh

Kellogg’s Variety Advent Calendar, £4

“24 bowls to Christmas”, announces the front of this Kellogg’s advent calendar, while cereal characters familiar from childhood wave cheerily on a background of snow. The idea is that you open a cardboard flap a day and enjoy a cereal-based pun before tucking into your mini box of Frosted Flakes or Rice Krispies.

There is no doubt that Tesco (which is exclusively stocking the calendar) is on to a brilliant concept – this is, the internet tells me, the very first cereal advent calendar. Its arrival was greeted with a flurry of nostalgia and a scrum for bowls and spoons. Everyone, it seems, loves Coco Pops, and no one, even as an adult, really wants to eat Cornflakes. For anyone who works in an office with a fridge, this is an excellent use of the communal milk.

However while the cereal was a joy, the calendar became redundant pretty much around the time I tore open the cardboard to find the Coco Pops. While the calendar is actually a pretty good deal (it’s usually £2.05 from Tesco for a variety pack containing eight mini-boxes), I can’t help thinking kids might get more out of it if the boxes were individually numbered and doled out. But maybe illicit sugar is exciting whatever day of the year it is. Julia

Holland & Barrett Natural Beauty Advent Calendar, £17

Surely the intriguingly titled “Dr Organic Snail Gel” in the Holland and Barrett Beauty Advent Calendar was a metaphor – for the gel’s slimy texture? But no. Snail Gel, it turns out, contains actual “snail secretion filtrate”. In truth, I was less sceptical about snaily-secretions than about the whole concept of beauty-based calendars at all: “Look at all this needless plastic packaging” my inner George Monbiot moaned! “Will the pressure to consume never stop?!”

Yet by the time I opened my first window (“Seahorse Plankton Facial Oil”), my defences were softening. By window number two (“Pure Potions’ Moisturising Ointment”, containing beeswax and hemp), I was a beauty-cream-calendar convert. Winter was coming and my hands looked like they belonged to a White Walker. Now, thanks to this exotic exercise in self-care, they’re reviving nicely. India Bourke 

The Big Chilli Advent Calendar, £35

I have a theory that there are two types of cooks in every home: the efficient cook, who does most of the cooking day-to-day, week-in, week-out. And the glamorous cook, usually but not exclusively the man, who does fancy set-pieces and uses every utensil doing so. 

I do the cooking every day, which in theory ought to mean this calendar was great. However, it turns out that hugely increasing the number of chillies in your diet is a really good way to start your own DIY colonic irrigation facility. The meals were nice and I got a lot of reading done on the toilet afterwards, but I really wouldn’t recommend it.

Adding to my irritation, the calendar makers clearly don’t want you to treat it as an actual calendar. Each day has a new spice with a new recipe, but some of them suggest using spices from other days then as well, and you have to stock up on many other spices to get the best out of the chillies. This is clearly a glamour cook’s calendar, designed to be opened at weekly intervals. Stephen Bush 

That Boutique-y Gin Company Advent Calendar, £99.95

At just under £100, this gin advent calendar feels more like an investment opportunity than a stocking-filler. Then again, this is quite a lot of gin: 24 bottles of 30ml each, in flavours ranging from neroli to “bathtub”. Each comes in a squat, medicinal bottle, with a fiddly rubbery seal to discourage you from chaining several in a row. (This is acceptable with chocolate advent calendars, but inadvisable with alcoholic ones.) Among the flavours, there are very few misses – though spicy spirits are an abomination in my book. My personal favourite: Swedish rose gin. Helen Lewis 

House of Newby Tea Advent Calendar, £55

Knock knock. Who’s there? A slovenly journalist. A slovenly journalist who? A slovenly journalist pawing at the door of this beautiful advent calendar in the shape of a Victorian five-floor double-fronted townhouse – complete with a stairway up to the front door, snowflakes whirling over the brickwork, and intricate window displays. This calendar is so luxurious that when it arrived I felt like Tiny Tim, pressing my face up against it, unable to comprehend the wonders within. Each of the 24 drawers behind the door contain four teabags, elegantly wrapped in Indian textile prints. The smells and flavours are powerful – there are black, mint, green and herbal teas of all varieties – and the designs pretty. Plus you can save the little house for next year and fill each day with PG Tips for a lucky loved one. God bless us, every one. Anoosh

Paxton’s Champagne Truffle Advent Calender, £35

This calendar includes 24 truffles and is priced at £35. Yes, £35. That works out at £1.46 per truffle (a fraction cheaper than the box of 12 you can buy on their website all year round). I know the real message of Christmas is spending too much money on absurdly luxurious chocolate treats, but the thought of chocolatiers charging £1.46 for one truffle makes me turn into a hideous cartoon Grinch wiggling my nose and demanding the holiday be banned forever.

Considering the price, you really want something outstanding. There are three truffles here (white, milk and dark), and each comes with a whisper of unnecessary gold leaf on top. They are really, really nice – the perfect mix of sugary and boozy – but after the 20th they start to get a bit sickly. And when you think that for £35 you could buy a beauty calendar from Benefit, House of Fraser or Holland & Barrett and still have change left over, it feels a bit ridiculous. Anna Leszkiewicz 

Amazon Beauty Advent Calendar, £35

There has never been a greater bargain than Amazon's offering to the beauty calendar market. For three plastic tenners and a plastic fiver, you get a ridiculously useful array of cult beauty products – from hairsprays to nail polishes, creams to lip balms, and make-up to make-up brushes. Some products are full-sized, but the small ones are handy for handbags or (dare I say it) sneaky stocking fillers. Amazingly, in 24 days I only experienced two duds (the James Read Gradual Tan Sleep Mask Tan Face and a bath bomb) with everything else being incredibly useful and great value. The packaging itself deserves a special shout out, as each product comes in a (reusable, if you're thrifty) gold and black box, and when you pull one product from the bottom of the calendar another drops down in its place. True magic. The real reason Jesus was born. Amelia 

Bluebird Tea Mixologists Advent Calendar, £36

Like every basic bozo on the internet, I love tea and make it a key part of my identity in order to sound homely and stand in for a personality. I get headaches when I forget to have one. I freak out when it’s not just the right shade of brown (Pantone Chermoula). I don’t know what to do on holiday in Europe.

But Bluebird’s tea advent calendar is not the one for me. Day one gave me gingerbread chai – a powder in a little unmarked pouch that a bouncer would definitely have questions about. Reader, it threw me. I nearly cried in the office kitchen, which I usually only do in the afternoon. I tried to brew it in a strainer for a bit, and discovered you’re meant to just put it in and pour boiling water over it. Like it’s a goddamn Lemsip.

There are lots of matcha powders in this calendar – healthy Japanese powdered green tea that packs far more of a punch than the experimental tea bag infusions, like the strawberry lemonade one, but the earthy flavour isn’t always what you want of a morning. Essentially, I’m too basic for this highly complex and rich tea advent calendar. And it should come with instructions. Anoosh 

Lakrids Liquorice Advent Calendar, £32.95

The history of Danish liquorice firm Lakrids, as presented in its marketing material, is one which raises some questions. The company started life in 2007, we are told, "as the dream of Johan Bülow, who didn’t understand why liquorice was so rarely blended with other flavours. Nor why liquorice had traditionally been made using wheat flour, instead of a gluten free flour. It turns out that both are very difficult!"

This description, combined with the whimsical punctuation, brings to mind images of a mad scientist, possibly one played by Christopher Lloyd, popping bits of wheat-based liquorice into bubbling green test tubes, and watching the resultant gloop explode in his face. It's charming and concerning in equal measure.

But what of the product itself? The box is very pretty, done in shades of black and silver and pink, and would look great on the same shelf as your extensive collection of Fabergé eggs. Behind each window you get a tiny bag containing two balls (yes) of liquorice, coated in a selection of flavourings: raspberry and white chocolate, say, or salty caramel. Most of these are both unusual and delicious, which is on the whole a great combination.

That said, I do have three complaints. One is that if you eat more than three bags in a sitting, you might find that you’ve had enough liquorice, to be honest. Another is that I still have no idea what was in the exciting, larger windows representing the 23rd and 24th of December, because unnamed colleagues got there and snaffled them before I could. Could be anything in there. Could be untold riches, or unspeakable horrors. I guess we’ll never know.

These, though, are Jonn-specific complaints, of course, so let's focus on one that's a bit more universal. Some of the windows contain salty liquorice. This is a Scandinavian delicacy, and if you're the sort of person who likes the taste you get dripping down the back of your throat when you've got a cold, then this will no doubt be a treat. For normal people hoping for some bloody chocolate, though, it's something of a disappointment. Honestly, the week someone returned from the north and left a bag of salted liquorice on the office snacks tray is a serious candidate for the worst week of my life. This stuff is awful.

I'm being harsh here. Most people don't eat several days worth of their advent calendar in a sitting – actually, that's not true is it? Of course you do, you disgusting little pigs – but you're not supposed to so it's probably unfair to judge the calendar on that basis.

And generally speaking, it looks lovely, and most of the treats it contains are both unusual and tasty. Providing you're the sort of person who likes either salted liquorice or a good old-fashioned game of advent calendar Russian Roulette, then just maybe this is the festive treat for you. Jonn Elledge

Pukka Christmas Calendar, £7.99 

Christmas? I love Christmas! Fruity teas all ‘round! This calendar’s very colourful design looks a bit like a tree and has a cool ribbon to hang it where you want (I hope it’ll look better in your kitchen than by my work phone). Great selection of teas – lots of wintry chai, cinnamon and ginger ones – but there’s one major drawback. Where…are…the windows? How do you expect me, or indeed any normal human, to follow the numbers’ order if the teas aren’t hidden behind windows?? I tried and it lasted about one (1) day. Buy if you like your tea with a side of total anarchy... Pauline Bock 

This is a lovely way to expand the teas you regularly drink, and I encountered a lot of teas that I otherwise might not have tried. I looked forward to my different tea each day, and that they are clearly labelled on the outside means that you know whether you are starting the day with “Revitalise” or if you should save “Nighttime” for the evening.

On the downside: I also encountered a number of teas I would pay never to drink again – Mint and Liquorice, Camomile, Vanilla and Manuka Honey, every single one of the fennel teas – and there isn’t quite enough variety to last the 25 days. The first variation on mint tea – Three Mint – was nice. By the time you have tried three different variations on mint the suspicion you are just drinking the same tea in a different packet is hard to shake. It’s also pretty grim after the first fennel tea knowing there are more down the track, and if you really like a tea there’s no more. Still, it’s a great introduction to Pukka’s teas. Stephen 

No7 Ultimate Beauty Calendar, £40

When compared to more glamorous beauty calendars like Liberty or Diptyque, there’s perhaps something a bit underwhelming about the idea of a No7 advent offering. No7 feels a bit granny (mine would give me all the minis she’d accumulate with points and vouchers as little presents practically every time I saw her). But those other calendars cost hundreds of pounds. Here, for £40, you get three eyeshadows, three lip products, three nail polishes, two eyeliners, two brushes, mascara, a beauty blender, primer, micellar water, tweezers, almost every product in the Protect & Perfect range, and more – Boots claims all this would normally add up to £169. It looks great, and the products are a mix of full-size and smaller versions still on the larger side of “mini”. Instead of a probably unflattering shade, one door contains a voucher for a free bronzer matched to your skin tone in-store. An undeniable bargain. Anna

Marks & Spencer Beauty and Make-Up Calendar, £35 (when you spend another £35 in store)

What is the real point of a beauty advent calendar? This is a question that has plagued philosophers for centuries. Is it to get you to try products you wouldn’t normally use, in the hope you’ll then spend $$$ on the full-size version? Is it to give you a discount for essentially buying miniatures in bulk? The Marks & Spencer calendar seemingly offers both these benefits – it claims to contain £250 worth of products for a mere £35 (although you also have to spend £35 in store to get it at this price, sneaky little M&S.) Unlike some calendars which seemingly just offer you 24 different anti-ageing creams this one does contain a variety of stuff – and, more importantly, some nice make-up that you would pay actual money for. This is no Zoella calendar, my friends. No, I don’t know what a “firming beauty shot” is either (apparently you put it on your face, either underneath or on top of make-up – what?) but a Stila lip gloss, glitter nail polish and full-size tube of mascara I can very much get on board with. Lizzie

Yankee Candle Advent Wreath, £24.99

It is my personal, and perhaps wrong, belief that candle advent calendars should feature 24 different candle scents. Like Wax Lyrical, this offering has only a handful of scents  – this time six  – meaning that once again there's not much door-opening-excitement after the first week of advent. The scents themselves are pretty darn good however, and you get a lot of Yankee for your dollar (normally one normal-sized Yankee candle would set you back half a million pounds). "The Perfect Tree" scent will fill you with festive cheer and "Macaron Treats" will help you cool down if the scents of cinnamon and festivally-themed lattes get too much in life. It's a good deal, but I expect a more generous array of scents next year. Amelia

L'Occitane Luxury Advent Calendar, £89

This calendar is actually a very classy, dark blue and golden box set. It’s just too cute to throw away, so after December I suggest you recycle this mini chest of drawers to organise your socks/jewellery/LEGOs. All the products in this calendar feel decadent: “ultra rich” lip balm, shimmering lotion, divine oil… and hand creams. So. Many. Hand creams. After the third one, I basically just expected to get a new pot of cream every day, and since I’m not yet 80 (despite what this calendar insinuated by offering me some fancy but still hurtful “precious” anti-age cream, merci bien) it became boring quite quickly. Great textures and scents – the conditioner’s strong essential oils really smell like Provence, and in the middle of the misty London cold I’m much grateful for that – but lacking a bit in diversity. Favour this calendar for your mum or grandma, or for yourself if you really, REALLY like hand cream, I’m not judging. Pauline 

Hotel Chocolat 100% Dark Chocolate Advent Calendar, £12.50

I like dark chocolate, even really dark chocolate, so I thought “100 per cent cocoa, why not?”.

Merrily picking out the first chocolate from behind door one of the classy monochrome snowscape, I swiftly found out why not. The box says the chocolate is “Rare and Vintage”, but the effect wasn’t what you’d expect when those words are applied to cheese or wine – it was more like perusing an antique shop and deciding to lick a dusty stuffed badger.

After spitting the acrid mass into the bin I decided to solicit some opinions from my colleagues to find out if it was just me and my seemingly unsophisticated tastes … It was not just me. Just some of the appalled descriptions:

“Like chewing on a twig”

“Notes of petrol”

“Like scorched earth after the apocalypse”

“An abomination”

“Get it for someone you hate”

I’ll caveat that last statement, because we did find one person who actually liked this “abomination” so there is obviously a market out there, just not a very large one. So, the New Statesman recommends that you only get this calendar for someone you are absolutely, 100 per cent sure, likes 100 per cent cocoa chocolate… or someone you hate. (NB: We also tried the 65 per cent Hotel Chocolat Supermilk Calendar, which was lovely. Turns out milk and sugar are quite good for making chocolate actually taste like chocolate). Jasper Jackson