Do you remember Christmas as a kid? I do. I remember it fondly – my whole family packing into the car and driving around to look at holiday lights, hand-grinding nuts and baking Christmas squares with mom, dancing to holiday music in the kitchen, hanging copious amounts of tinsel on the tree, and snuggling up with mom and dad to follow Santa on the news. And, yes, I remember some gifts – like the dollhouse my parents made for us one year and the wooden kitchen set they built for us another. But I don’t really remember the store-bought gifts because it wasn’t the gifts under the tree that made Christmas magical; it was the family experiences we had in the weeks and days leading up to Christmas that I cherished most.
Perhaps that’s why each year I look so forward to the family rituals and traditions we’ve created with our own children. And for us, it begins with our Advent calendar.
Growing up, my sisters and I always received one of those advent calendars with a chocolate behind each window. Today you can find an advent calendar with just about anything in it and around almost any theme – Lego, Playmobil, Star Wars, stickers, illustrations, bible verses – the list goes on and on. I have to admit, on occasion, I am tempted by some of the fun, ready-made advent calendars out there, but, in the end, I always do my own DIY version for our kids. Here’s why: Like my childhood Christmases, I want theirs to be packed with memories of time spent together.
So we do a different kind of advent calendar in our house, one that focuses on connecting with one another instead of collecting more things. Each day our children take turns opening our advent calendar to discover a ‘gift’ of an experience we will have together. Some days it’s as simple as reading a holiday story before bed or taking a winter walk through the woods. Other days, we make sparkly snow play dough or bake Christmas cookies. Some days we deliver hot soup to the homeless or make birdseed ornaments for feathered friends. And each year, we throw in something extra special, such as a Christmas show or an afternoon at the Nutcracker (one of my favourite holiday traditions). Some of our ‘gifts of experience’ have a price tag attached, but most don’t cost anything at all. And the memories we make, well, those are priceless.
Often, when I talk about how we do advent, it’s quickly dismissed as too time-consuming. And I get that! Despite consciously striving to protect quiet family time, some days are still really busy, especially around the holidays. Perhaps, during a season where time seems to be at a premium, it’s more important than ever to carve out time to be fully present with our children, whether it’s just ten minutes to rock out to some holiday tunes after dinner or an afternoon to go skating outside as a family. After all, isn’t that what we want to instill in our children – the idea that the holidays are a time for kindness, gratitude and loved ones, rather than the whirlwind of a season it has become as parents frantically try to get everything done, bought and company-ready?
What if we reject the ‘Christmas’ marketed to us in favour of a slower, more intentional holiday rooted in our values and relationships?
This holiday, I want to give you a gift - a printable list of 30 advent activities for you and your family to enjoy together, plus 10 blank ones for you to fill in with experiences of your choice. I have deliberately left off the numbers so you can be flexible with when and how you use these ‘gifts of experiences’. I personally like to put each advent ‘gift’ in the evening before, saving the ones that don’t require a lot of time for days that are particularly busy. And of course, you don’t have to use them as an advent at all! You could print them off and choose just one or two activities to do each week of December - whatever works for you.
Whether you use these activities or something altogether different, I hope that you can find time each day this holiday for the ones you love. Because, despite the marketing that bombards us, we all know deep down that what our children need and want most from us can’t be bought in a store or found behind an advent window. What our children desire most is us. Let’s give them that – our time and attention. Let this be the season we give less presents…and become more present.