How to make an advent calendar

I think I’ve said a few times here that I love creating traditions for my family and my kids. The Christmas season is like the candy store of kid traditions, the ultimate celebration of expectation and surprise.

Kids need order and stability in their lives, which is probably why they love traditions so much.  My younger son, especially, needs things to be predictable, what he expected, what he knows is the correct order of the universe. He loves to look at the calendar, flip through the months, and talk about what’s coming up. He could probably recite it to you: January means ski lessons. February means Valentine’s Day. March is when we go to Florida. April is Easter. May is Mommy’s birthday. June means Father’s Day. July is Owen’s birthday and finally, finally (!) we get to August, his birthday month. That’s followed by the first day of school, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. It’s all there. His home, his family, his places, his people. His traditions.

Owen loves traditions too, and his energy helps stoke Noah’s excitement. They talk about what “we always do” as if they are two old men on the porch together in some distant future. Owen’s memories have become Noah’s, and they anxiously await what they know is coming, what they are sure will be wonderful.

It’s a lot to live up to.

Consequently, I do not start any traditions I’m not prepared to keep up, at least for the next few years. One relatively new one is an Advent calendar, begun two years ago.

The first year was simply envelopes with cards in them that specified what we would do that day — make cookies, get a tree, go shopping, Sunday School Christmas program, a Christmas party, wrap our gifts, and so on. If there was a day without an activity it just said “have hot cocoa after school” or “movie night with popcorn,” or another simple, easy-on-me family activity. It didn’t cost a dime: I had the envelopes left over from some long-past project (we’ve discussed my hoarding issues before, right?), as well as the number stickers in my too-large stash of kids craft supplies. The cards were just printed off my computer, with some cheesy clip art to decorate. Easy, quick (I made it late at night on November 30), and not particularly stylish, but nonetheless a giant hit.

Last year was our second year, and I took it up a notch. (And painted my kitchen. Ever so much better!)

This time I used tiny kraft paper bags (again, I had these in the basement, and there’s plenty more where these came from!), but I downloaded some designed number labels and printed them on sticker paper to decorate the bags.

The activities were still just printed on cardstock, cut, and put in the bag, but for a few of the days I stuck a little bit of candy or a tiny gift (like soda-flavored Chapstick, or a Pez dispenser) in the bag instead of an activity. The boys’ favorite part, though, was the scavenger hunt I sent them on on December 1. A few rhymed clues sent them scrambling all over the house to find a wrapped Lego Star Wars Advent set (yes, this does exist, complete with Santa Yoda). Every day after that, they were sure the bag would contain more clues, and were somewhat disappointed. This year I’ll save the clues for later in the month!

These have been a great way for my boys to pass those endless childhood days until Christmas comes, and to make holiday preparations more meaningful for everyone. I want my kids to experience shopping, decorating, cooking, serving others, baking, and making gifts as part of the Christmas joy, not just things that happen around them while they wait for the big day. I hope it accomplishes that. If it doesn’t, well, we all had a lot of fun.

If you want to try this easy tradition with your kids, here are some suggestions for activities, many of which you probably already do.

  • Write your letters to Santa Claus
  • Get out the Christmas music
  • Go shopping with Daddy (for Mom)
  • Make a project – whatever you have or your kids like. Last year we made beaded snowflakes.
  • Start making your gifts
  • Make Chex Mix after school (to my boys, Chex Mix is a huge deal. Not sure why, but it works)
  • Sledding day!
  • Go shopping with Mom (for Dad)
  • Get out the Christmas decorations
  • Go to the tree farm to get your tree (or lot, whatever you do)
  • Make cookies
  • Go skating
  • Wrap your gifts today
  • Go shopping for Giving Tree gifts (a program at our church)
  • Family Movie Night!
  • Decorate cookies
  • Have hot cocoa after school
  • We are volunteering at church tonight
  • Make a gingerbread house (make this easy on yourself, buy a pre-made kit. You aren’t going to eat it anyway!)
  • Christmas party today! (if you have friend or family parties to attend, that counts for that day on your countdown)
  • Finish making your gifts today
  • Go to a play or concert that your family will like. (We go to the Best Christmas Pageant Ever each year at a children’s theater)
  • Finish wrapping all your gifts
  • Today is the Sunday School Program
  • It’s Christmas Eve! We will go to church at 4 p.m. and then to Grandpa and Grandma’s house.

Some tiny, inexpensive gifts could include:

  • Quarters or interesting coins if your kids are collectors (Kennedy half dollar, Sacagawea dollar coin)
  • Tic Tacs
  • Fun flavored or character chapstick
  • Pez guys
  • Tiny flashlight
  • Stickers
  • Tattoos
  • Lego Minifigures, Squinkies, or Polly Pockets (buy a set and then put them in separate days)
  • Matchbox cars
  • Deck of mini cards
  • Mini stamp sets (I bought a set last year and divided them up)

If you have a dollar bin addiction like I do, you know where to get these kinds of things. If you don’t, Michaels and Target have the best dollar bins around. I did not put a gift in every bag, in fact I probably only put 3-4 things in the bags. I wanted the focus to be on activities.

I made the number stickers and cards last year with art from a free Carina Gardner printable download for a completely adorable paper cone Advent calendar. You could download that and use it as is – it is very cute and a fun and different approach.

I wanted to be able to close my bags, so I used the number art from the download and made insert cards and stickers out of it. (If you’d like to use my cards with Carina Gardner’s number art on them, here is a PDF. Print on paper or cardstock and cut out. The last page of the PDF is all the numbers, for use as stickers.)

Any box, bag, or envelope will work to hold the cards. A hole punch and some ribbon is all you need and your countdown is ready!

I am getting even more ambitious this year, and I plan to make this fun forest of paper trees from Pink Suede Shoe. I’ll let you know next year how it turned out.

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  1. Thanks for posting this Jen! We love traditions over here . . . sometimes i get started too late though. I made this advent calendar last year
    just the calendar – but didn’t have time to put the THINGS in it. Thanks for the great ideas!!!

  2. jill @ tinyandsmall says:

    fantastic ideas, jen!! (& beautiful blog!) i love that you keep it mostly activity-focused. we’ve done an advent calendar the last few years, & the first was chocolate every morning. bad deal. crazy kids, all hyped up on sugar.all.morning.

    we made homemade trees last year like the picture you posted. the kids had a lot of fun, & then little elves hid notes under them every night. those crazy elves. . . . 🙂

    here’s to a great, memorable advent for our kiddos!!

  3. Made two test trees tonight. That is hard! I am not so good with the futzy little parts of things. I need Mom. 🙂