1 Big Tip to Make It Meaningful

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.

Disney World

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
Advent Candles

Photo courtesy of stocking-fillers.co.uk

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!


26 thoughts on “1 Big Tip to Make It Meaningful

  1. I’m completely behind on my blog reading, but saw Natalie’s comment about your new blog look and had to come over and take a peek. It’s lovely!!! Fits your online personality like a glove.

  2. I love this awesome new look of your blog! Great job.
    I’ve always admired the Advent Calendars and even found one online that I absolutely adore but I still haven’t purchased it. Maybe because the price is crazy high. Instead, I just bought a fun calendars for each of my children and we will open the first doors tonight to see what surprise hides behind.

    I’m gonna steal some of your wonderful surprise ideas and add them to what’s already in our Advent calendars. Thank you for sharing them!

    • Thanks, Angela. I’m glad everyone seems to like the new look.
      What a great way to make the Advent Calendar work for you. The fun part is adding all those surprises and watching your kids faces light up!

  3. Pingback: FAB posts on blogging, tweeting, writing, living and laughing… – Natalie Hartford

  4. I especially love reading the surprises you put behind those doors, Marcia! What a wonderful blend of kind acts for others and enjoying family time. I never kept an advent calendar, but this makes me wish I had! One of my favorite holiday traditions has been that as the writer in my family, I was always designated the one to write my niece’s “letters from Santa” to be left with her presents in response to the note she’d leave with milk and cookies. It was always so much fun to leave fun, loving and encouraging messages in Santa’s voice : ). Actually, we still carry on the tradition, even though she’s 14 now, just for fun!

    • Thanks, Pam! I was a stay-at-home mom back then and had loads of time to be crafty and use my imagination.
      I love the idea of your writing the letters for your niece! My Dad used to write those letters for his grandchildren. It’s a special treat for the kids and something they’ll always remember about you. Traditions like that are the ones that get passed down, generation to generation.

  5. Wow, nice blog makeover, Marcia!

    I love what you did with your kids with the Advent calendar of activities. It takes a concerted effort these days to keep Christmas as a family time of giving, rather than getting. One of my first mommy crafts was making an Advent calendar (our second child wasn’t born yet, so our first was one or two years old). We still hang it, every year. It’s made of red felt, with a green felt tree glued on, and pockets sewn in that have gold fabric paint numbers on them. There are small pictures (cut from old Christmas cards, with velcro on the back) in the pockets, and each child takes a day to put an “ornament” on the tree. The star picture is last.

    One of our favorite traditions is the Good Deeds jar. Every weekend during Advent, when we get home from church, everyone runs around writing on little slips of paper (because we seldom plan ahead of time, lol) acts of kindness they “caught” family members doing during the week. We fold up our slips in the jar, and also pull out the special chocolates candy dish (usually Dove squares, yum). One person is in charge of reading the slips, the other is in charge of giving out the chocolate variety of the do-gooder’s choice. It’s a lot of fun to read them (some are hilarious) and everyone feels more appreciative and appreciated.

    Thanks for giving me a chance to share, and for sharing your memories with us!

    • I love that, Kathy! That would have been right up my alley when my kids were young! I hope to see more Moms and Dads spending as much time on the more meaningful side of the holiday experience as they do on the commercial side of it.

      Thanks for compliment on my new blog theme…still tweaking it…not sure if it says ‘me’.

  6. Love the idea of a handmade advent calendar! I’ll have to remember that for next year. We’re using a simple grocery-store advent calendar to count down the days. My daughter’s 4 now, and this year we’re really enjoying talking about giving to our loved ones, as opposed to stressing the receiving bit. She has her own wrapping paper and ribbon, and she has picked out a few gifts, including a tractor puzzle for Grandpa and some handmade hearts and ornaments.

    • Oh, that’s so cute! Yeah, at 4 that’s about the most you can get across to her…it’s not all about toys but we give to others, too. As she grows, you can add in more stuff. Like you saw in my post, even the ‘giving’ type activities were fun things. Kids love surprising someone else…shoveling the walk for a neighbor was fun for them because we did it when they weren’t around and they came home surprised. what fun it was to watch their faces when they saw they didn’t have to shovel themselves.

  7. Love love LOVE the new look! OMG – SWEET!!!! And soooo you!!!
    Wonderful post. I learned so many new and wonderful things. I’ve never had an advent calendar and never had any idea how they came about. What a wonderful story and I LOVED how you made an advent calendar that was meaningful and brought you and your family closer together and towards the true meaning of Christmas.

    • Thanks, Natalie! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I was very into being Catholic as a kid and raised my kids that way, so there are a lot of things that still have meaning for me today and that I want to pass on to my grandchildren.

  8. Hi Marcia! Thanks for the list of meaningful activities I can place into my son’s Advent calendar (Playmobil makes them, too…). He would balk if I took away the excitement of getting a little toy for his Playmobile set over the month. But I know he will be excited to “do” things, also. He does worry about whether he’s been a good boy–for Santa and for God. I can explain that these are activities both would look favorably upon, as they make him a better person by helping others in need.

    Enjoy the blessings of the season. 🙂

    • That’s a great way to use the calendar, Jolyse. It’s all about balancing the fun stuff for the kids and the meaningful stuff. Glad you came by and I wish you and your family happy holidays!

  9. Love the new look!

    We always have an advent calendar, but since we aren’t religious, it is usually a Cadbury’s chocolate one, or this year we have the Star Wars Lego calendar. They are fun for the kids. Since we don’t subscribe to any one religion, I like to make the holidays about giving back, believing in miracles, love and grace, not just about gifts. My kids know that Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Christ, but they also know the Pagan history behind the yule log and why eight candles are lit for Hanukkah. We’re a well-rounded bunch of heathens!

    • I think you’re handling it exactly right, Tameri! A balance of all the good things about Christmas will always make sense to the kids. I’m not overly religious either, but there are some things from my Catholic upbringing that I hold onto and think make sense. Being a good person, helping others when you can, etc. For kids, they’ll enjoy the toys and treats, but the long term memories will be the other things you all did together as a family. Sounds like you’ve got it all covered!

  10. When I look back at my childhood, I remember the experiences I shared with family and friends, not the gifts I received. You’ve hit on a great way to create wonderful Christmas memories for our own kids & grandkids.

    • Thanks, Diana. There are only 4 gifts I remember from all of my childhood – a huge box of crayons, my Barbie doll, my Shirley Temple doll and my Lie Detector game. They must have had a serious impact on me, otherwise I wouldn’t have remember them 50 years later. I’d rather my kids and grandkids remember experiences and learn that Christmas is a time of giving.

  11. Having trouble getting a normal view of your blog so I hope this comes through. Being raised Catholic and going to Catholic school I am very familiar with Advent calendars although it was really all around the birth of Christ and I think the meaning was lost on me as a young child. I love your idea which gives true meaning to the holidays of thanks and giving..wonderful!!

    • I wonder why you’re having trouble? I’m having issues with it myself-that picture at the top is something I can’t remove and it irks me that I can’t customize a theme I’m paying for-ugh!
      Thanks, Donna. Catholic school kind of drilled that into us and I think it’s a great lesson for all of us.

  12. Love the new look of your blog! Those are wonderful ideas to add to an advent calendar. Helping children to focus on the non-commercial aspect of holidays and instilling a sense of community and service is a great gift. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Thank you, Patricia. My blog theme has issues that better get fixed or I’m reurning it! Anyway, I agree…taking some of the focus off the gifts received and placing it on the giving is a good thing.

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