About this time in November, 1987, my daughter was 5 1/2 years old and I was full-bellied pregnant with my son. We were flying out of snowy New York the day after Thanksgiving for a week of playing with Disney characters in Florida’s sunshine.
As any 5 year old’s would, Jennifer’s little body nearly trembled with excitement the weeks prior to Thanksgiving. A Disney vacation followed by Christmas was almost too much to bear. All conversation centered on Minnie Mouse and Santa Claus. “I can’t wait to hug Minnie Mouse, Mama! ” Will Santa bring me my Barbie Dream House?” were only two of the dozens of queries. I revelled in her excitement and smiled at seeing my baby girl so happy.
At the same time, I wondered if the bigger picture was escaping her. While Thanksgiving was a secular holiday, it had its roots in Christian living. Her Catholic school teachings were reinforcing the religious implications of the upcoming holidays. However, we had been so busy readying ourselves for the commercialized side of the holidays, I could see the true meaning of these favorite holidays had slipped away.
Before all the hubbub of the Thanksgiving holiday and our vacation was upon us, I made an Advent Calendar. For those who are unfamiliar with them, Advent is the 4-week religious period before Christmas…the time of waiting for the birth of Christ, and the calendar is a way of marking the time.
Advent Calendars were first made in the early 1800s in Germany where the Lutherans would actually count down the days to Christmas by chalking a number on their front doors.
The first printed calendars appeared by 1900 made from a piece of cardboard with 24 tiny colored pictures affixed to it. A few years later, the calendar evolved into one that had doors that opened to show a religious scene or a short prayer verse inside.
Like most wholesome things, Advent calendars became commercialized along with Christmas itself, after World War II. Candy companies made Advent calendars with daily candy ‘prizes’ for children. Other companies made Advent calendars with tiny ornaments for each day. Today, Legos makes calendars with tiny legos in each door and Pottery Barn sells an Advent Calendar for $150.
The spiritual meaning of Advent calendars has been lost over time and are now just a way for kids to count down the days until Santa brings them piles of toys. There is no real harm in that, however, when my children were young I chose to make that time more meaningful.
I found a way to divert their energies away from focusing on all the toys they had to have, as seen on TV and in the gazillion toy catalogs that arrived unsolicited. My idea involved fun experiences and community service, and kept their minds off the greedy begging for toys that usually began early in the holiday season.
I made a simple calendar by putting two pieces of cardboard together-one on top of the other. I drew a colorful Christmas tree adorned with popcorn and cranberry garlands, birds and squirrels. I marked and cut 24 little doors on the tree. The doors were numbered 1-24. Behind each door I wrote an activity for the kids and I to do together.
The activities were fun to dream up. I wanted some that were just for fun and others that would have some meaning for the children. These are just a few of the surprises I wrote behind the doors on many years of Advent Calendars:
- a sleigh ride through the forest
- volunteer at the homeless shelter’s kitchen
- donate cans and boxes of food to the food bank
- choose a family in need from our church’s list and buy christmas dinner fixings
- go carolling in our neighborhood
- make christmas cookies for us and for Grandma
- visit the christmas tree display at the art museum
- drive thru the neighborhood to see everyone’s decorations and vote on our favorites
- shovel a neighbor’s driveway
- make christmas cards for relatives
- make cinnamon ornaments for our tree
- set up a winter bird feeder
- sit by the fire, roast marshmallows and tell stories
- bring our dog for a visit at the local nursing home
Every evening, we would sit by the fireplace and read a Christmas storybook. We had an Advent candle burning nearby, as we snuggled on the couch. An Advent candle has numbered markings on the side. It is burned down to the next number each day marking time, again, until Christmas.
I was determined to raise both of my children with as much respect for the meaning of Thanksgiving and Christmas as for the thrill of giving and receiving gifts.
Have you ever made an Advent Calendar? How did/do you help your children appreciate the spiritual side of the holidays? What activities bring value to your holidays?
You know I love hearing from you and anxiously await your comments!
Please be here on Friday for another installment of The Life List Club!