Each year, as Christmas approaches, we are presented with a choice as to how we intend to celebrate the festive season. We can allow ourselves to be swept up in the mayhem and commercialisation of the modern approach, or, we can look to the true meaning of Christmas and choose to bring it to our children with a genuine sense of reverence, truth and love.
Christmas brings eternal hope that out of chaos, humanity can find peace on earth among men and women of good-will.
Advent (the four weeks leading to Christmas) can be a joyous time of anticipation and excitement. Yet within all the activity there can be quiet moments when wonder and reverence blossom.
For pre-Christian people, Advent was a time to woo back life and hope from the primal darkness of winter. All ordinary action and daily routine was brought to a halt, carts and wagons were festooned with green boughs and lights, cart wheels (symbolised by the wreath) were brought indoors as a sign to stop and turn inwards.
While the winter may be missing from our Australian Advent, we can all benefit from the concept of stopping time, reflecting inwardly and choosing not to allow commercialism to rob us of the true meaning of Christmas.
This inward reflection and marking of time is not unlike the pregnant woman who prepares for the arrival of her child. We count the days and increase the light as we light our candles and prepare our gifts. With quiet excitement we undertake simple gestures that ratify the magic and mystery about to take place and help us to see the inner truth.
We do not need to explain these actions to the children, simply allow them to take these things quietly into their hearts. Without needing to be overtly religious, the nativity story of Mary and Joseph’s long journey and the birth of the baby Jesus naturally touches the hearts of children.
Each family can create its own traditions where wonder and reverence blossom — the daily ritual of a little, handmade gift in an Advent calendar, lighting the candles of an Advent wreath each Sunday before Christmas, displaying a nativity scene, baking, sewing and wrapping Christmas treats and gifts and making beautiful decorations for the tree and home.
I have fond memories as a child of waking on the first of December to find a cardboard Advent Calendar depicting a beautiful nativity scene and containing little windows to be opened every morning until Christmas Eve, each revealing a pretty little festive image. These calendars date back to the early 19th century, when German Lutherans marked Advent in a variety of ways. In its simplest form Advent was marked by drawing a chalk line of the door each day, some families would light a new candle or hang a little religious picture on the wall each day.
Modern day Advent Calendars often centre around a little gift or chocolate to count down the 24 days until Christmas. No doubt all children love presents and lollies, but perhaps in our time-poor, highly-scheduled society sharing the gift of time could be even more precious.
When my children were young I introduced an Advent Activity Calendar. Rather than expecting a gift each day, my children eagerly anticipated a special shared activity. Some were simple carefree fun - building a cubby with rugs over the kitchen table and eating dinner there or going to the beach to watch the sunset. Many became annual traditions involving them in Christmas preparations - making decorations, cooking our Christmas treats, writing letters to Father Christmas, making cards for our friends. Some were reminders of the true spirit of Christmas - making Christmas treats for the mailman and wrapping presents for our local Giving Tree.
Along the way I realised the key was to keep it stress-free. At times I had unrealistic expectations of perfect “Walton-family” moments and over the years I learned that my happiness at their involvement was more important than things being “just right”.
To plan your Advent Activity Calendar, start with a calendar for the month of December and firstly fill in the activities which are set dates (eg Carols by Candlelight). Then choose simple activities for days you know you’ll be busy (eg school nights) and perhaps more complex ones on weekends and school holidays. Write out each activity onto a slip of paper and insert it into the corresponding day on your calendar.
Here’s some ideas for activities:
- Build a cubby house under the kitchen table and the family have dinner there.
- Each member of the family write a grateful list.
- Write your letters to Father Christmas.
- Set up a nativity scene and add a gold star to the blue sky each night.
- Wrap a present for a local Giving Tree.
- Write and post your Christmas cards.
- Go to a special spot to eat fish and chips and watch the sunset.
- Bake gingerbread men (or even a gingerbread house).
- Decorate Christmas gift tags.
- Pitch a tent in the backyard and sleep in it.
- Make homemade Christmas crackers for Christmas day dinner.
- Make an Advent wreath and light a candle each Sunday.
- Make a Christmas faerie garden.
- Sleep under the Christmas tree.
- Have breakfast for dinner.
- Go for a walk (or drive) around a suburb with good Christmas lights.
- Make Christmas decorations.
- Collect your live Christmas tree from a local tree farm or seller.
- Hang your Christmas lights outside.
- Call a long distance relative and sing a Christmas carol over the phone.
- Make some festival homemade treats for the neighbours, the postman, the rubbish man, etc.
- Have a family board games night.
- Have a family Secret Santa – with all gifts handmade or something found in nature.
- Go to a local Carols by Candlelight (or create your own on your street)
- Get the garden ready for Father Christmas and leave out carrots for the reindeer.
- Make eggnog and drink it after dinner by candlelight.
- Act out the nativity story complete with Christmas carols.
The next step is to make your Advent Calendar. A Google search will reveal a plethora of advent calendar ideas. My personal preference is for natural materials, with a simple, minimalist feel but a touch of red to bring in the festive feel. Remember, keep it stress-free. If the most you can manage is a basket of little manilla envelopes with a handwritten number on each – then so be it. But if you have more time and the inclination, there is much joy to be had in handcrafting a family heirloom which you lovingly unpack each year.
Here’s two easy idea you can make at home:
Simple Paper Bag Garland
Cute little handmade gusseted bags made with thick craft paper – although you could use a festive or block coloured paper if you prefer.
Step 1: Cut out 24 pieces of paper 15cmx13cm. Fold both shorter sides into the centre, overlapping one side over the other.
Step 2: Glue the overlap and leave these to dry.
Step 3: At this point number each bag – I used rubber stamps, but you could hand-write them, or print and cut out numbers. If gluing or stamping leave to dry.
Step 4: Fold the bottom open edge up 1.5cm. Score the folded edge.
Step 4: Fold the corners on this folded edge towards the centre.
Step 5: Unfold the corners and the folded edge. Push the corners into the inside of the paper bag.
Step 6: Push one flat edge, then the other into the inside of the bag. This is left unsealed so that it is easy for children to squeeze open this end of the bag to access each day’s activity note.
Step 7: Fold over the top edge of the bag about 3cm towards the back.
Step 8: Thread a large needle with Baker’s Twine, festive ribbon or simple kitchen string if you want to go really minimal. Starting from the front of the bag, push the needle through to the back and then return to the front, about 1cm along.
Step 9: Tie a bow at the front.
Step 10: Thread a large needle with your choice of garland string – I used jute twine. String all the bags on in order.
Little origami boxes are so easy (a Google search reveals heaps of easy-to-follow tutorials and videos). One year I used a mix of recycled paper and old sheet music from an op shop, to make what my 3 year old called ‘singing boxes’. Of course you could use any paper you fancied. I started with squares 12cmx12cm which make boxes about 5cmx5cm square and 2cm deep. I then printed out numbers onto tracing paper, tore then out and glued then on. Display them in a bowl or basket, or perhaps blu-tacked to the wall in a tree-shaped triangle.
These ideas are easy to make, but in reality they still take a fair bit of time (you need 24 after all). That's why I've put together a three different DIY kits with the components pre-made so all you have to do is put them together with your own personalised touch.
Discover our DIY Advent Calendar Kits here. Hoping they make it easy to bring the magic of Advent to your family this year.