Counting down to Christmas: Alternative Advent calendars
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
This is Part 1 in our Celebrating Christmas series, a peek into some of the activities our family undertakes to make Christmas a special time, even when we’re celebrating alone and there’s no snow in sight. Follow along every Sunday in Advent for Christmas recipes, decoration ideas, book recommendations and an insight into how we celebrate.
Today, four Sundays before Christmas, marks the start of Advent, the Christian season leading up to Christmas Day. Our family is atheist but, as the major holidays in Australia (and England, where Joël grew up) are based around the Christian calendar and are celebrated by most families and institutions, Christian or not, we choose to join in with the excitement.
We have just put up our Christmas tree and have had dried fruit soaking in brandy ready to make our pudding later this afternoon (I’ll post the recipe next week). On Friday, we visited ‘Santa’s workshop’ and rode the free Christmas train at our local shopping centre. Last weekend we pulled out all of our Christmas books, and on Thursday we baked spiced Christmas biscuits to share with friends. Signs of Christmas are all around, so how do we explain to young children that it’s still almost a month away?
Traditionally, Advent calendars have been used to mark down the days to Christmas. As a child, I had a paper one that I reused every year, with little doors that revealed winter scenes (I hung it on my bedroom window so the light shone through from behind). Chocolate calendars are everywhere, and branded ones for putting together toy playsets (such as Hot Wheels, Lego or Playmobil) are growing in popularity. I will admit we have bought tea Advent calendars or even chocolate ones for ourselves, in past years (and may still do so this year, once prices reduce dramatically as we get past the first week of December). Nevertheless, for very small children, I wanted something simpler to visually represent the time left until Christmas. Enter, the Advent candle.
I only discovered Advent candles last year. I can’t remember if I saw a photo or read about it on a blog or a Facebook group, but I immediately knew it was something I wanted to try. A candle, with the dates listed from December 1st at the top down to Christmas Day at the bottom, where you burn a little bit each day to get to Christmas. This is a great visual for small children, even before they can understand the writing or numbers, as they see the candle getting smaller and smaller. It also makes a great table centrepiece and gives you the fun tradition of lighting the candle each evening. If you forget, just burn extra the next night (or at breakfast the next day). I love how simple it is, aside from buying the candle in the first place, there’s not much left to do. They aren’t common in Australia, we got ours from Happy Flame, but I believe they are more common in parts of Europe (I have seen them on Etsy, too, if you’re having trouble finding one locally or discover they’ve all sold out).
This is an idea for those who like to give a little gift each day, but want to stay away from sugar, plastic or commercialism. It works well with a ‘pocket-style’ advent calendar (we have a little string of 24 mini stockings that we picked up in a post-Christmas clearance one year). Gather up 24 found nature items (shells, rocks, gumnuts etc) and have one appear each day in the corresponding pocket. You could add little wooden peg dolls or mini tubs of play dough or other craft items, if you wanted to direct play in a certain way.
Similar to above, collect the figurines, props and animals to build a nativity scene in the lead up to Christmas. If you have a collection of plastic or wooden farm animals and little people (even Lego people will work), you may already have most of what you need. You could present it next to a barn (or cardboard box ‘stable’), for children to add to the scene each day (with baby Jesus appearing at the end). You could use this idea to build a scene on any theme, but I like the idea of interactive nativity scenes for teaching young children about the Christmas story.
This year, we have purchased a Nature Advent String from Tashy Fay Creations that is a combination of a nature and nativity advent. We opened our first package this morning, a candle with a little verse introducing us to the coming week’s theme. It comes with the pieces needed to create a background with a stable, a path of stars to walk along to as you count down to Christmas, and a little package to unwrap each day to add to the scene. It’s more expensive than a chocolate calendar, but it’s something we’ll likely reuse in different formats in future years.
I love this idea, it is something we have done previously and will likely do again. Come up with a list of Christmassy activities you would like to undertake in December then allocate one to each day. This can be as specific or vague as you like. We included events our children already knew about, such as Christmas parties, concerts, and Carols by Candlelight, as well as activities we needed to get done at home, such as making the Christmas pudding, baking gingerbread, wrapping and posting presents, and making gifts for friends. We filled the gaps with ‘read Christmas books’ or ‘listen to Christmas music’. I have seen people make cardboard calendars with windows that open to reveal the activity, or strings of sealed enveloped pegged along a ribbon, but I prefer to write out a little card with the activity (I would draw a little image as well as writing it) every evening so I could switch things around if our plans changed. I then put the card in our mini-stocking advent string, but the card could simply appear on the breakfast table, by the Christmas tree, or in the letterbox each morning, depending on how you want to do things.
Book (or movie or music) Advent
This is similar to the activity Advent calendar. Wrap up a pile of books, one for each day, to open and read as you count down to Christmas. These can be new books or ones taken from your own collection, or ones you borrow from the library. Some people wrap them all in a stack at the start, so you can see the pile getting smaller, others have a stocking or pillowcase that they put a different book in each day. I haven’t done this, as my children would likely request one of the books I had already wrapped, and they also like to read the same books over and over again so 24 books might be too many for us.
I think this idea would also work with movies or Christmas songs or albums, depending on what your family enjoys, or a combination of books, movies and music (perhaps with the book appearing in a sack each day, so you won’t run the risk of having favourites removed from circulation).
Ultimately, I don’t think any one option is necessarily better than any other. Different ideas will suit different families, at different stages. I won’t rule out buying chocolate or toy calendars for our children down the track, either. These are just a few ideas for those looking for a new or alternative tradition to count down to Christmas with their family.
Stay tuned next week for some festive foods to make with children…