Every year growing up we had an Advent calendar. It was one my mom made with a green and red, quilted Christmas tree sewn onto a white felt background. There were 24 little red pom pom balls we pinned on each day. I’ll always love the anticipation leading up to the Christmas holiday, even though I now miss my mom and all her beautiful traditions dearly.

For a few years after my mom’s death I left some of those traditions slide, not necessarily on purpose, more out of emotional exhaustion. During a couple of those years, my aunt sent my kids Advent calendars in the mail. Simple, beautiful ones where each day opens onto a piece of chocolate.

I was so grateful to my aunt for bringing this tradition back into our lives. You would have thought Santa himself came to visit my kids personally, they were so excited and wowed. It reminded me how much my kids love counting down the days to Christmas in a fun, visual way, and I wanted to make this a wonderful tradition for them to keep in their hearts.

And as much as I love a good piece of chocolate, I thought it would be fun to make this daily countdown more than just about candy, so I made us an Advent calendar with empty pockets just waiting for me to fill with love.

I wanted our calendar to be a way for us to connect with each other despite the crazy, busy time of year. I think no matter your religion, connecting with loved ones through beautiful traditions and rituals can be so important and can feed our souls on these dark winter days. This season is about being together, showing love, kindness, grace, and yes, it’s about tradition.

You don’t even have to be a craft queen to make a fun Advent calendar. One of my favorite ideas was 24 envelopes with the numbers 1-24 written on them. They were attached to some yarn using clothes pins. Inside each envelope you can put the special note, activity idea or treat. Another friend of mine used socks, like little stockings. Maybe your kids can even help you make it. The best part about making your own is that you get to decide what to put in each day.

Once I got into it, it became so much fun to think of ideas. Some of our days do have candy, or silly little gifts like pretty shells or bouncy balls, but the ones with the activities and notes are our favorites.

Here are nine of my favorite ways to spruce up your Advent calendar.

Write or draw Christmas wish lists together
I know the true meaning of Christmas is not about the gifts, but I can’t help it, I love giving gifts and my kids love making their wish lists.We even make lists of what we want to get, make or do for each other, which we have a blast with. Like the year my son wrote that he wanted to buy me a new dishwasher (the one we had worked just fine, maybe he heard me complaining about the dishes too much!). Or when he wrote, “No more bickering,” on his list of what he would get me. That kid pays attention! If you want to go whole hog, address them to Santa and put them in the mail.

Write riddles on little pieces of paper and put in the Advent calendar pocket or envelope or whatever you’re using. Riddles are so much fun; my kids adore them!

Say something nice about each other at dinner
I wrote this one down and when my kids pulled it out of the pocket and read it, they were like, “Huh?” OK, so we definitely needed to work on purposely saying nice things about each other. And again, it brought fun and giggles, and a few moans to the dinner table, but we were all engaged with each other, and we were practicing kindness.

Scavenger hunt
Since my son couldn’t read until about nine months ago, our scavenger hunt has been with pictures. I drew small pictures leading to other small pictures to show where the next clues would be hidden around the house. For example, give them the first picture which could be of a shoe or whatever you want. Then they have to find that shoe, and in the shoe is the next picture clue leading them around the house until at the end they find a special treat like silly putty or a snow globe, or tiny plastic animal figurines.

Find a favorite charity
I think this is a great way to bring the holiday spirit bright and shiny, by taking care of other people, or the planet, or animals. We research favorite charities together and then donate a certain amount. My kids almost always pick the animal shelter. One year they picked Make-A-Wish. The options are endless.

Special family holiday date night
This can be whatever works for you. Going to see the lights and having hot cocoa, attending a kids’ holiday play or concert, going out to a special dinner together. My kids look forward to this night the other 364 days of the year. “Where are we going this year?” they ask me, over and over again. “Remember when we went to Wild Ginger and had that coconut ice cream that one year,” they exclaim. I love to hear them talk about previous holiday date nights; their memories are adding up in such a special way.

Make holiday cookies
I’m not the best or prettiest cookie maker when it comes to those gorgeously-decorated iced Christmas cookies (in fact mine always look a bit wonky), but you know what? My kids don’t care, they have a blast! And it’s something we all do together. We make a huge mess in the kitchen, I make sure I have wine and my husband is home, and we go to town making cookies. My daughter’s favorite are chocolate truffles, and my son’s are the iced sugar cookies. It’s hard to say which one’s messier, but they’re both a heaping of fun!

Game night
We play hangman and charades a lot in our house, and we tailor each one to be holiday themed this time of year. Make some hot cider and popcorn get the games out and play!

Read favorite Christmas books together
We like to save this one for Christmas Eve, and I try to find a new book each year to add to our collection. We cuddle together on the couch, turn the tree lights on and read together until it’s time for bed.

The ideas of what you can sneak into your Advent calendar are endless, and each one can become a new special tradition for your family, and ways to make your holiday full of warmth and love. Happy Holidays! 

Sara Ohlin

Puget Sound based writer, Sara Ohlin is a mom, wannabe photographer, obsessive reader, ridiculous foodie, and the author of the upcoming contemporary romance novels, Handling the Rancher and Salvaging Love. You can find her essays at Anderbo.com, Feminine Collective, Mothers Always Write, Her View from Home, and in anthologies such as Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak about Healthcare in America, and Take Care: Tales, Tips, & Love from Women Caregivers. Find her at www.saraohlin.com