• Mara Shanahan

Countdown to Christmas! - Advent Activity Calendar

Updated: Nov 4

My favorite part of the Christmas season is the lead-up. Putting up the tree, seeing the first Christmas lights on drives around town, planning the perfect Christmas gifts, watching our favorite Christmas movies, seeing the first snowflakes, all of the waiting for the magic to come... It all gives me the warm and fuzzies. When I had a child, that anticipatory excitement increased ten-fold. By his 2nd Christmas, I had a fantastic idea. I had all these "must-dos" and traditions that I wanted to make sure happened, so I jotted them all down on a calendar and my idea of a Advent Activity calendar was born!

Every year since then, before the end of November, I have a December calendar printed and all my ideas for activities and treats planned out for the 24 days leading up to Christmas. Some of the ideas are actual activities and, yes, some are things. But I'm a minimalist and I prefer experiences to junky toys, so if he gets a "thing", it's usually a really good thing.

I'll print those ideas out on slips of paper, and slide them into little linen bags that I have stamped 1-24 and hung by a string on a beam in my kitchen, like so:

Of course, since then, I've seen tons of cute advent calendars that would serve this purpose well. Adorable, German style, little wooden houses with 24 little drawers... Fabric Christmas trees with 24 pockets on the ornaments... The idea is that you have something big enough to put a little slip of paper in and maybe a little piece of chocolate as a treat. Now, let's talk about what to put in them!


These are the things that you do every year, or else it just doesn't feel like Christmas. The things that bring the most joy and feelings of togetherness.

Visiting Gramma and Making Gingerbread Houses/Men with the Cousins

There is nothing like going to Gramma's house and hanging with your cousins at Christmas time. Giggles, sugar, hugs, the warm, spicy smell of gingerbread. Perfection.

Movie Night - It's a Wonderful Life

We like to sprinkle in at least a few movie nights during December, but watching It's a Wonderful Life is essential. #Icryeverytime

Visit With Santa

We've had various versions of a visit with Santa over the years, from a simple visit to the mall Santa, right on up to taking a Polar Express-style train ride to the "North Pole" to visit the big guy in his own digs.

New Christmas Pajamas

Growing up, my siblings and I always got to open one present on Christmas Eve and it was always pajamas to wear to bed that night. I've continued the Christmas PJ's tradition, but I like to give them at the beginning of the month so that he can wear them all Christmas season.

Drive Around Town to Look at Lights

Such a simple little thrill, seeing Christmas light displays. My brother and I used to count them and tally them up. "You get the right side, I'll get the left." Make it extra special with a Christmas music playlist to sing along to and maybe even some thermoses of hot chocolate!

Christmas Adventures for Nature Lovers

I love to weave together the story of Christmas with what I know of the natural world around us. The return of the sun, honoring the stillness of the winter forest, collecting branches, berries and other tokens from nature to decorate with. It brings it all full circle for me. Christian or not, you can't deny the rhythm of mother nature around you if pay close attention. Here are some of the things we like to do along those lines:

Winter Walk in the Woods

Usually done on a weekend so that we haven plenty of time to enjoy it, nothing beats a quiet walk down a trail. We'll sometimes find some treasures to bring back home to decorate with - berries, evergreen branches, pinecones, or even cool looking rocks or shells.

Winter Solstice Dinner by Candlelight

To honor the shortest day/longest night, and the return of the sun, we will turn off all the lights at dinner, light some candles, and have a joyful and beautiful dinner by candlelight. I would love to some day have a fire in the backyard on the Winter Solstice, but it's always a bit too cold in my neck of the woods towards the end of December.

We also read The Shortest Day, a wonderful book explaining the science and some of the cultural traditions surrounding the Winter Solstice. There are a few other books that I've heard good things about as well.

Feed the Birds

I once heard that it is a tradition in Scandinavian countries to spread birdseed on your doorstep on Christmas morning to include the birds in the feasting to bring good luck to your household for the coming year. In our house, we love to watch the birds at the feeder at any time of year. I keep our feeder full, but at Christmas they get the extra special treats. I make sure to get the good nut & berry mix as well as a couple suet feeders from my local backyard bird enthusiast store. We've also made some homemade birdseed ornaments to decorate the trees with. All you need is some sliced fruit or pinecones, peanut butter, bird seed, and twine!

I also accompany this tradition with a book or two:

Make Reindeer Food

I usually reserve this one for the day before Christmas Eve (or Christmas Eve Eve, as we called it when we were kids!), so that it stays fresh until we spread it in the yard on the big night itself. Now, this is not that glitter-filled mess we made as kids back in the 80's, no no no. If I'm feeding this to my backyard friends (or, um, the Reindeer), I don't want to put nasty plastic glitter in there.

We mix together a simple recipe of oats, cranberries, naturally dyed red and green sugars, and "magic dust". My secret? Sparkling sugar. I had some left over in my pantry years ago, and now I save it just for this purpose. Just a pinch will do the trick. Whatever makes the magic happen, right?

Practicing Kindness

It can be an uphill battle at Christmas time to keep your kids feeling grateful. Ask me how I know. The cure for that? Giving. Here are a few of the things we like to do.

Shop for the Local Food Pantry

Our grocery store has a bin by the exit for food collection for the local food pantry, which makes it super easy to shop and drop. You could also go shopping and then drop it off directly to the pantry, if you want your kids to deliver it themselves. I find it to be unnecessary. You don't want to turn it into a praise-mongering event and you also don't want to invite voyeurism. There will be a certain amount of curiosity for your child, but just answer their questions and move on without making a big deal out of it. Food Pantries are a blessing for many families, especially this time of year. It should be presented to your child matter-of-factly and left at that. "There are lots of families that don't have enough to eat. We have saved a little bit of money to be able to buy some things for them. It's great to share, isn't it?" The End.

I would suggest purchasing new, not digging something out of the back of your pantry that you don't want. Here are some common needs/wants for food pantries: Boxes of cereal, instant oatmeal, coffee, hot cocoa, granola bars, teabags, peanut butter, jelly, canned soups, canned tuna/chicken, canned beans, boxed baking mixes, boxed meal prep mixes, applesauce, crackers, cooking oils, pasta, pasta sauce, and rice. Try to not include glass jars.

If your family is in need of some help from a food pantry this year, Feeding America has made it easy to find the closest bank here: https://www.feedingamerica.org/find-your-local-foodbank

Drop off Cookies to the Local Fire/Police

Homemade sounds like a lovely idea, but think twice. I wouldn't eat homemade cookies from a stranger, would you? Get a tray or two of some lovely Christmas cookies from a bakery and drop them off at the station with a thank you note.

Making Gifts for the Grandparents

Spend an afternoon making ornaments or baked goods to gift to the grandparents as gifts directly from your kids. Homemade ornaments are always a hit.

One year, we made ornaments out of applesauce and cinnamon. They still smell so delicious!

Together Time

As most parents can attest, the one thing that your children want most, and is sometimes the hardest thing to give, is YOU. Life can be hectic and busy and, truth be told, being a grownup is tiring. But here we are. Now is the time to give yourself to your children. The days are long, but the years are short!

Game Night

Put some frozen pizza in the oven and pile the kitchen table high with your favorite board or card games. My son's current favorites are Trouble, Sorry, Uno and Sleeping Queens.

Movie Nights

Besides the aforementioned favorite, there are a few classics we like to watch every year. Some of our favorites are: A Charlie Brown Christmas, Elf (not my husband's favorite, but I chuckle every time!), Polar Express, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the original!), Home Alone, A Christmas Story, and of course all the vintage favorites by Rankin/Bass. Popcorn is a requirement.


Earlier when I was talking about having "things" in the advent calendar? This is what I was talking about. Specifically Legos. Now, I don't know about you, but I sometimes have a hard time "playing" with my son. I don't have the same imagination, or I'm "doing it wrong". But Legos I can play all day.

Something about the "setting up" just speaks to me. I love creating little worlds with him. I found

some adorable minifigures that will go well with some of the other Legos he already has to create a little Christmas world.


This item falls under Together Time because we still like to read these books together. A lot of the living that we do centers around books, so we do spend a lot of time snuggled on the couch together reading. We have a collection of Christmas and Winter-themed books that we keep in a basket in the living room during Christmas time, and he also receives a new book or two yearly to add to the collection. When we have new books, those become an item on the advent calendar, and they get wrapped and put under the tree before the beginning of December. Here are a few of our favorites, old and new. Check out my Favorite Nature-Themed Christmas Books post for more!

Baking Christmas Cookies

Who doesn't love a good cookie? Every year, on the Sunday before Christmas, we get out our favorite recipes for cookies - cranberry shortbread, gingersnaps, and chocolate chip - and bake dozens of fresh, warm, cookies. These are shared with family and with Santa, and some are saved for treats for ourselves during

the Christmas week. Coinciding with this day, our town does a "Santa Tour", in which Santa rides around in his sleigh on the back of a fire truck and visits every street and road in town, waving and playing jolly Christmas music. We're lucky in that he passes by our house in the evening, when the sleigh is all lit up with lights and it's a wonder to behold. It's amazing that, prior to having a child, I found this tradition to be slightly amusing at best. But now that I see the world through my little man's eyes, it is pure wonder and magic to see Santa drive by on his sleigh!

Local Events

We pick and choose from some of these each year, depending on what night they happen to fall on during this busy season.

Local Tree Lighting

Our town does a tree lighting every year on the town green. They typically have Santa in the gazebo and some refreshments and crafts in the town hall.

Live Nativity

We've attended a live nativity, at which the night of Jesus' birth is recreated with actors in costume and some live stable animals. It was lovely.

Going to the Movies

What is it about Christmastime that makes going to the movies so special? Typically, a couple new blockbusters are released right before Christmas and it's so fun to spend an afternoon seeing them. I look forward to having that experience again with my little boy sometime soon.

Sleighride on a Farm

Where I live it's not hard to find a local farm that offers horse-drawn sleighrides at Christmastime. It's one of those things that might cost a little bit, but for an extra-special, one time, childhood experience, you can't replace the magic of a sleighride in snow.

That's it, my friends! You might be thinking "that's a LOT of stuff to fit into December!", but keep in mind, these are things that I WANT to do. Scheduling them on a calendar is the way to ensure they happen. Listen, we have our kids as the little, wondrous creatures they are for such a short time. I choose him. I will always choose him and my husband over anything else. No other way of being "busy" can take that away from me, especially during Christmastime.

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