"We'll get the Christmas decorations down this weekend," I tell my boys.
"I wonder what will be in the Advent calendar this year," my younger son ponders, grinning at me. I wonder indeed. In fact, I wonder aloud - because my kids are 10 and 12 - whether we still want to do an Advent calendar. That question is met with a look of outrage from my oldest.
"I always want to do that Advent calendar," is the tearful response from my youngest. "Until we are grown ups!"
When I bought the wooden box twelve years ago, I don't remember what I had in mind. An occasional nickel or a sweet? My parents teased that, as the boys grew older, they would want more and I would be reduced to trying to cram a credit card in there. After years of filling this puppy, though, I am happy to say that I have got it down to a science - all without breaking the bank account, cluttering the house or turning my kids into greedy monsters.
Here are my tried and true successes for filling the Advent calendar:
- Heirloom items you can give again and again. A lifetime ago, I invested in two sets of Thomas the Train holiday trains. The first year, I stuffed the trains into the numbered cartons, thinking that would be the end of it. When I packed up the Christmas goodies at the end of the season, though, I wondered why I wouldn't also pack up the trains. They were seasonal after all. Since then, it has been a tradition. Every year, I put the trains in slots - six slots in total. They are usually toward the front of the month which gives mom a chance to get organized. Petite wooden dolls, fairies, snowman, ornaments and so on could also fit. Anything seasonal and lasting that is small enough to fit can become a family tradition.
- Small sweets. Fair trade chocolate, mints, bubble gum and the like fit easily into the calendar cubbies. They can account for any allergies and brighten up a dull winter day.
- Let Your Children Be Santa's Elves. What feels better than giving? Why not share this with your children. Every year, I put a note in the calendar for a farm animal. It is not for us, though. Rather, the boys and I log onto Heifer and peruse the ducks, goats and bees for families in need on the other side of the globe. There are an endless number of similar charity ideas - adopt a seal, plant a tree, help out a family farmer. We have also adopted families/children in the past, gone shopping for a Toys for Tots, and, this year, will fill two grocery bags for Second Harvest. Another option is a coupon for a family outing to volunteer at a soup kitchen or gift shop for the less privileged.
- The joy of Christmas. Looking back on my childhood, I recall few specific gifts. Instead, I remember baking cookies with my mom, watching a favorite Christmas movie with my dad or walking to see the Christmas lights with my grandparents. It is these experiences that have become the meat of our Advent calendar. The promise to watch Elf with popcorn. A walk with hot cocoa down Christmas tree lane. A visit from grandparents or a holiday tea with cousins. Often, I incorporate events that will be happening regardless - and just do not mention them to the boys until they open the note.
- Music and games. Coupons for iTunes happily fill a day or two each December. My boys enjoy music and love the opportunity to download a new song for free. If your children have their own electronic devices, you could also include a coupon for a new app.
- A small, handmade toy. Whenever I have put a store-bought toy in the calendar, it has backfired. The kids came to expect more, get greedy and do not appreciate the gift they got. Now, I rarely include toys in the calendar at all. Last year, I made an exception for a small animal I knit for each of the boys. If I get knitting soon, I might repeat it again this year.
- A wish. The 25th day of the calendar always holds a simple wish for a Merry Christmas, printed on a slip of paper. In the beginning, I would save the best items for the last slot but found that the gift is usually overlooked in the hubbub of the holiday itself. A wish is enough.