Looking ahead in my calendar last month, I noticed the alert set for November 1: “Start prepping Advent calendar.” Advent is one of my all-time favorite holiday seasons in the year. Creating traditions around holidays or seasons with my own kids has been an adventure of discovering what I want to do, what I can do, and exploring the “why” behind it all.
Our Advent calendar tradition started around the time my two older kids (now 13 and almost 16) were three and six. I wanted them to experience Advent, as opposed to consuming the typical “open-the-tiny-door-and-get-a-treat” kind of Advent calendar. For me, the season is about preparing our hearts and our homes for Christmas. Teaching my kids what Advent looks like to me, through age-appropriate adventures and experiences, was the driving force as I molded my ideas into what this would look like for us.
It started very simply with easy daily activities that fit the ages of my kids: finger-painting a family craft, watching a holiday cartoon, making treats for the neighbors, reading a bible verse, adding a piece to the Nativity, etc. The experiences have grown and changed as the kids (and our schedules) have changed. Taking the time to S-L-O-W-D-O-W-N gets more difficult each year, and this tradition has brought some intention into how I plan for the season. What hasn’t changed as much is that all four of my kids look forward to seeing what activity or prompt is in each day’s pocket, even though they now anticipate the same activities from year to year. They decide themselves whose turn it is to pull out the paper in the pocket, and they protect that “right” for each other. It’s a small joy of daily excitement to see what’s waiting for the day.
How we do our experience-based Advent tradition:
A simple, homemade advent calendar made of two cookie sheets and ribbon adorns the wall at the kids’ height. Little paper pockets decorated with stickers and handwritten numbers hold each day’s little paper slip with the activity for the day. Advent adventures await them.
The upfront planning comes mostly before the season starts when I schedule time to look at the family calendar of events. Picking the most important activities (or the ones scheduled by an entity outside our family, like a choir concert or downtown tree lighting) comes first, and then planning out the when-will-we-do-it-all on paper before writing them out on slips of paper for the pockets. As you’ll see from the samples below, our family does a mix of family-fun type holiday activities (baking, crafts, movies), service-oriented experiences, and small acts of kindness. You’ll also notice from our examples that many of the daily experiences are things already on the family calendar, or things we would be doing anyway – but opening the paper each morning puts ritual and intention behind that rush of holiday activities.
How to create your own experience-based Advent calendar
There is no shortage of options for Advent calendar “containers” in which to put the daily prompt or activities – ours is simple and homemade, but you could do the same tradition using a classic paper chain or an artisan-made felt tree. It can be as simple or intricate as you decide you want: shadowboxes, paper pockets on a ring, cookie sheets, tiny boxes hot glued together…the clearance shelves, Dollar Store and pieces in your storage are great places to start looking for materials to put this together.
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More than how it looks is the meaning behind the daily ritual. Does your family have a particular focus, or need for focus? Start there. Give yourself permission to adjust as you go, be flexible in doing multiple activities a day, or none at all if you don’t get to them. Structure activities around what makes your heart happy and fills the season with time well spent.
Sample daily Advent activities, experiences, or prompts
Here are just a few ideas of what might be written on the daily slips of paper in our house. I recommend starting your brainstorming with the family events, activities, and traditions you already plan to do; then filling in the gaps with smaller, do-able ideas from the list below – or come up with your own!
- Make cards and deliver to individuals at a nursing home, or place under windshields in a parking lot
- Do a chore for a sibling
- Make a card for the lunch staff and school custodian
- Try hot chocolate from 3 different places
- Go “Christmas Light looking”
- Decorate Gingerbread Houses
- Choose a recipe and write up the ingredients to make with Mom
- Family Christmas Move Night!
- Family Christmas Craft
- Record ourselves singing a carol to send or post for others
- Adopt a child to purchase a gift for
- Decorate the tree
- Your new ornament is revealed today!
- Shop for a gift/write a letter for your sibling
- Make paper ornaments/snowflakes to decorate the windows.
- Shop & Drop canned goods for the food pantry
- Put shoes out for St. Nicholas
- Gather your change and let’s find a Salvation Army Kettle to drop it in
- Our family ornament is revealed
- Make pinecone bird feeders
- Look through your things…what can we donate that you’ve outgrown or aren’t interested in any more?
- Christmas lights at the park
- Family game night: Christmas song trivia
- Family art night: draw together with a How-To video
- Christmas movie marathon—snacks for dinner tonight!
- Call a family member to check in on them
- Write a card to your teacher
- Neighborhood hayride
- Christmas adventure downtown (coincides with a concert that we’ll be there for anyway)