How I plan for the holidays: Our Advent Calendar

Every year, some time in November, Aron and I make a list of all of the things we plan to do—and want to do—for the holidays in preparation of pulling out the advent calendar on the 1st of December. We sit down with our phones and our date-books and I scroll through last year’s photos to remind myself of our typical highlights.

Each morning or afternoon thereafter, the kids open a drawer—one does the odd numbered days and one the even—where, inside, they find a slip of paper with a special plan for the day and a tiny ornament to hang on their tiny tree.

We don’t put the message in until it’s almost time to look inside, just in case plans change.

If we’re totally exhausted, for example, we might switch out “Decorate the tree tonight” for “Eat a candy cane. ”

I get a lot of questions about how we work it. It goes like this: I start with all of the scheduled events on a list numbered 1 through 25—we tend to know, for example, what day we will go see the town tree lighting or have breakfast with Santa. Maybe there are some music tickets pre-arranged or a cookie-baking day set by tradition.

Beside that list, I write down all of the ideas. Some things only happen on certain days of the week or over specific weekend (like the Art Center children’s sale), and I’ll pencil those in on the days they could fall. Slowly I’ll assign as many of the ideas onto specific days as makes sense. The rest—the “filler,” so to speak—stay to the side to pull from at will.

The idea for an experience-filled advent calendar came from my friend Melissa, who shared with me the advice to mix the larger events and outings with the simple.

Make a list of the big activities, like: “cutting down the Christmas tree, walking in the town’s Christmas parade and tree lighting, visiting Santa Claus, driving around to see Christmas lights—and add simple things that don’t require leaving the house.” Some of her family’s favorites were “having a picnic next to the tree, rocking out to ‘Feliz Navidad’ and other Christmas songs, and making paper-snowflakes or a Christmas ornament.”

I would agree—sometimes it’s the simplest ones that bring the most joy! For example, a last-minute activity of cutting up coffee filters to make snowflakes was a huge hit in our home and has been requested ever since.

Here are some of the traditions I’m looking most forward to…

Decorating the tree—and remembering the special places we picked out ornaments.

Roasting marshmallows with friends. These are some homemade peppermint ones we made one year.

Taking the kids to breakfast with Santa Claus

Watching our favorite holiday movies (like The Snowman). Last year we shared Little Women and it was so wonderful! (Bonus: If yours are at the age for the Little House series, it dovetails nicely as it takes place around the same time.)

Pulling out the box of our favorite holiday books (and adding to it).

Frosting and decorating this Yule Log Cake—an alternative to the traditional bûche de Noel.

“Spreading cheer” (aka mailing our holiday cards). The kids actually are terrific helpers and it gets them much more excited about the cards they receive—and appreciative of the time people took to send them to us.

Baking (and sharing) cookies.

Looking at twinkle lights.

Lighting candles and Christmas smokers.

Listening to Christmas music. And singing carols with friends.

I also look forward to our book club’s local family adoptions and to the kids’ toy donations, and last year we incorporated this Jingle Jar tradition as a new way to give.

And finally, I like seeing all of the activities fill up our chalkboard in the kitchen—and referring back to it year after year.

It seems like a lot, but I know many of us are doing so many special things to make some magic for our families over the holidays and this is just one way to spread it out and appreciate it!

What traditions are you looking forward to over the holiday season?

P.S. A post about incorporating others’ holiday traditions into your own that might also inspire.

[Third photo by Thomas J. Story for Sunset Magazine; All others are mine or Aron’s. Where to find similar German-inspired Advent calendars: Wayfair, Amazon, Etsy]

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