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Our Advent Calendar

When my sister-in-law texted me this morning to ask if I could send her all of the things I do for our family Advent Calendar…I did not think it would result in a blogpost tonight. I never planned on this blog being a place where I talk about all of the “little things” of parenting, and advent calendar activities definitely qualify as the little things.

But as I think about what the season of Advent has come to mean to my children, I can see how important this calendar has been to our family story. Every single Christmas, during both the happy ones- like the December when we first brought our rainbow baby home from the hospital, and during the sorrowful ones- like the year when we reached December 1st and I didn’t think it was humanly possible to endure any more suffering…our Advent Calendar has been a means for life and hope and joy to push into our story day after day. Somehow these simple advent activities we shared together…of remembering the coming of Christ…came to mean so much to each one of us, because they forced life (or at least forced me to fight for life) even during the darkest night.

So tonight, when I posted that I had finally jotted down some of my Advent Calendar ideas (after re-inventing the wheel every single year for a decade straight), and that I could share my ideas with others in need of fresh Christmastime magic- the response was overwhelming. Though I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the outpouring of interest from the mamas in my life. Because if there is anything that suffering has taught me, it is that Christmas isn’t so much a party for the merry, as it is an invitation for the weary. And most mama’s I know, are at least a little bit weary. Weary of pushing through naptime, and bedtime, and dinnertime, and well, every blessed “time” in between.

But far beyond that, there are mamas in my life who are a different, and far deeper, kind of weary. This is for the mama I know, who will spend her very first Christmas apart from the precious baby she was forced to bury. This is for the mama I know, who will spend her very first Christmas apart from her children’s daddy. And this is for the mamas I know, who will spend their very first Christmas fighting constantly for a real and lasting kind of joy, both for them and their little ones, as they battle depression and anxiety and loneliness and despair…in a world filled with a very empty kind of merry.

So this is for you, you mamas who are the kind of weary I feel tonight…as I finished another installment of sixth grade homework and told my toddler for the hundredth time to stop touching the ornaments on the tree. But this is also for you, you mamas who are extra close to my heart, and who feel the kind of soul-breaking, heart-shattering weary I have felt for far too many years of my children’s “little years”-lives.

And if it helps at all, to have something to turn to at the end of each of these long December days…in the few minutes it takes to read a poem, eat a sweet, and focus your hearts on the coming of Jesus in some small way…it was worth it to me to finally get organized.

So without further adieu, after a decade of December days- here are 24 of the dozens upon dozens of ideas I’ve tried. (Some of my past ideas bombed so badly that they didn’t survive. But hey, if your kids can successfully camp out under the Christmas tree all night without getting in a fight…then by all means!) Just take what you like. Invent even better ideas. And then pass them back on to me. And let’s keep on fighting together to seek after the kind of Christmas-joy that only the advent of a Savior in a manger can bring.

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The Zeller Family Advent Calendar (11th Edition)

A few words of clarity: I’ve entitled each one just so you have a simple lesson you can share, especially if your kids are very small. Mine are currently 2, 7, 9, and 11- so they are all over the place in terms of understanding the complexity of the coming of Christ. But I like the idea of the headings because I want to point their hearts back to the simple reminder that each day is about Jesus above all else. You can use any kind of calendar, and we’ve had MANY, and I’ve included a short poem that I write out and put inside the calendar each night. These poems are not brilliant- most of them I wrote today. But they are the kind of poems that would impress a 7-year-old…(and let’s be honest, the whole thing need only impress a 7-year-old.) After each poem, I included a little (or sometimes big) activity we do for each day, but they can be done in any order you’d like except the first and the last one. 

Tonight I asked my kids which activities were their favorites, and I was surprised by their answers. I cannot stress this enough: what your kids will love most about this… is the BEING with you. This is really about 24 days of being together as a family. Of playing together & feasting together & scavenger-hunting together…what you do is so much less important than your presence in each Christmas memory you make.

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Jesus is the Reason for the Season. (December 1st)

“Today we begin the Advent Season- where we celebrate Christmas for a special reason. As we search for Jesus like the wise men true…let’s search for sweets and read the Good News.” 

I hide special chocolates around the house, and after they find them we get out the nativity, and read the first Christmas chapter in The Jesus Story Book Bible to begin the Advent season. The Jesus Storybook Bible is absolute gold and we read it all year long.

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Jesus is our Refuge and our safe place to hide.

“Put on your matching jammies and gather round the tree…it’s time for popcorn and our favorite Christmas movie!”

Each year we give them matching Christmas jammies (Target has a great selection), and then we watch Home Alone after the tree is up and decorated. Home Alone is a mixed bag, and we have to mute a few parts, but I LOVE the scene when Kevin runs to the church and hides near Jesus and his family.  I think it is pure magic, and I love talking to our kids about how Kevin chose to hide by the manger and felt safe near “Jesus” when he was being chased by all the bad guys.

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Jesus is the Light of the World and we can seek after Him.

“Get on your coats, and hats, and gloves…we’re off to look at Christmas lights, just because!”

We pack up thermoses of hot coco and doughnuts from our favorite bakery, and use a printed Christmas Lights Scavenger Hunt to search for Christmas lights hidden all over town.  (There are dozens of good ones on Pinterest including this one: Christmas Lights Scavenger Hunt).

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Jesus is the Reason we GET presents. (St. Nicholas Day on Dec 5th) 

“Tonight we travel to a far away place- with pickles and gingerbread and smiles on each face. Can you guess the place we go-to remember a Christmas of long ago?”

Then the kids guess Germany…for “St. Nicholas Tag.” First, we hang little glass pickle ornaments on the tree, and they have to find the hidden pickles just like kids in Germany do.  Then, we have them pretend to fall asleep on the “plane” (couch), and when the Christmas music starts they “wake up” in Germany on the morning of December 6th (since it really is the morning of the 6th there).  And then we open the St. Nicholas Day presents hidden in their stockings and we eat a German breakfast feast. This is a great way for us to get the whole Santa thing out the way, so that he can be remembered and honored, but not focused on all season. Our kids are well aware that Santa is just a nice guy who loved God and loved his town by bringing presents to all it’s little people.

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Jesus is the Reason we GIVE presents. 

“Just as we remembered St. Nicholas true, and how he brought presents to kids just like you… Let’s look through the Christmas catalogue cause it’s fun to do, and then chose presents for kids in Timbuktu.” 

Really- it’s not Timbuktu where we send the presents, but they love this one. Every year, we page through either the Compassion International or the World Vision catalogues and each person choses a present to give to kids in need somewhere else in the world.

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Jesus is the Bright, Morning Star.

“Long ago, in a field of stars, the Wise Men looked up at a sky much like ours, They wanted to find a Savior who would guide them Home, so let’s look up at the sky and know we’re alone.”

I hide Trader Joe’s shortbread star cookies all around the house, we read our “Christmas In the Manger” board book, and grab hot coco and cookies and go stargazing outside. It’s a fave. And if you are very early risers, you can even see the morning star some days.

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Jesus Calls us to Love our neighbors.

“Christmas is a time for spreading cheer- and love and kindness far and near. Let’s bake treats and share Jesus’ light…by bringing love to our neighbors tonight.”

We either bake sweets or make a craft and then bring them to our neighbors with a Christmas carol. We just do a few neighbors, but we let the kids run the whole operation.

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Jesus Plans exciting surprises.

“Guess what, Guess what!  Just wanted to say: “No School! Hooray! It’s your first snow day!”

Each year, there are surprises. Like last year, when it snowed here and there was no school, so we did a sledding adventure on our favorite hill and hid new winter hats in their Christmas stockings. Or when I found adorable tabletop trees in the Target $5 bin, and they each picked ornaments and twinkle lights to decorate a tiny tree for their rooms. Each year I throw in a few surprise days like these, and they are always favorites.

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Jesus offers Light in the deepest darkness. (Hanukkah Party)

“Break out the Yamika, it’s time now for Hanukkah!  Let’s spin the dreidel and open presents tonight…To celebrate the Jewish Festival of Light!”

We are not actually Jewish, but there are so many things I love about this tradition and sharing it with our kids. We talk about the meaning of Hanukkah for God’s people in Israel who still celebrate it today, and then eat latkes, cinnamon apples, lamb kabobs, and star of David cookies. And of course, spin the dreidel for little Hanukkah presents.

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Jesus brings Sweetness to our days.

“Gather around and have a lookie, It doesn’t matter if you are kid or wookie, Because tonight you get to make your favorite Christmas cookie!”

We bake my grandma’s peanut butter kiss cookies. And talk about how much sweeter life is at Christmastime because we come together to remember Jesus and to focus on His love for us and our love for one another. And then we have the kids make Christmas cards and cookies for each of their teachers.

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Jesus Loves us through one another. 

“Tonight we begin something brand new…though a fun tradition that’s tried and true. It’s called “Secret Santa” and it helps love abound, so grab a name and spread Christmas-love around. “ 

We chose Secret Santa names and use each others stockings to hide presents and notes each day.  (It largely bombed last year, but I think it will get better as they get older. : ) 

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Jesus Leads us on an endless adventure. 

“Quick! Get dressed in your best clothes around, Let’s celebrate Christmas out on the town!”

Each year we go somewhere new and fun as a family- the local Christmas Carousel, the Zoo to look at lights, iceskating, sledding, really anyplace special around town.

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Jesus gives Purpose to every life.

“Just as these trees were given meaning to each of their stories, Jesus wants to use your life for His glory.”

We read the “Three Trees: A Traditional Folktale” book by Elena Pasquali, the kids find tiny trees I’ve hidden around the house, and then we talk about the meaning in each story when it is lived for God’s glory.

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Jesus is the sweet Sacrifice that saved our souls.

“In churches of the Old Country long ago, a choirmaster made candy so that children would know, The One who paid the ultimate price…to bring heaven to earth and sweetness to life. The true meaning of Christmas is both sweet and deep, Jesus the Shepherd came for you and me. Can you find the hidden candy canes….?”

The kids find all the candy canes I hide around the house, and then we talk about how they were first made by a choirmaster in Cologne, Germany to keep kids happy and quiet during church and to remind them of the blood of Jesus, the purity of Jesus, and the Shepherd’s heart of Jesus. The mint is also a reminder of the hyssop plant used for purification in the Bible. I love this one because this simple reminder of God’s heart is everywhere at Christmas and hardly anyone knows of its deeper intentions.

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Jesus Invites us to remember His Story.

“Grab the dishtowel, the Swiffer, and the manger stall, It’s time to reenact the Christmas story y’all.”

At first, we had to be more “involved” in the directing, but our kids are now fully in charge of this. I read the story, my husband films it, and the kids reenact the Christmas story in their own words. Then we do some fun iPhone editing with Movie FX and watch it together on the big screen. (One year we edited it so that a huge crater hit Herod just in the nick of time, which was a nice twist to the story).  This one is even better when you have holiday guests and a live studio audience.

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Jesus brings Color to our empty lives.

“Grab your color crayons and sit by the fireplace, Let’s have a coloring contest and prizes for this race!”

We print coloring sheets of the Nativity Scene (Nativity Coloring Printable), and have a coloring contest with prizes. I love talking about the difference between a colorless life, and one filled up by God and His love.  And I cannot tell you how intense this contest gets in our home. : )

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Jesus is our Forever Home.

“A house is a place to dwell in and live, and tonight we make sweet houses to give, As a reminder that Jesus is the shelter we crave, this tiny baby whose first home was a cave.”

Each year we make either gingerbread stables or gingerbread houses (Walmart has great ones for so cheap- 4 houses for $8!) and then either give them to someone or use them to decorate our home for the season. I think they are barely edible, but the kids love them.

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Jesus is the Life (green) & Light (twinkle lights) of the whole world. 

“Tonight we gather around the tree, to light candles, and sing songs of victory. Jesus has come, let the good news be heard, He has brought life and light to this weary world.”

We talk about the origin of the German tradition of Christmas trees as a reminder of new life and bright light. Then we gather around our tree in our pjs, hold candles (which they love), and each chose a Christmas carol to sing before bed. Another fan fave.

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Jesus is our Victory and will lead us in triumph one day.

“Tonight you must find all the wreaths hanging low, to reminds us of Roman times long ago, When people would wear wreaths high on their head, to celebrate victory and the triumphal stead.”

We like to talk about the meaning behind the Christmas wreath, and how they were once made in Roman times to symbolize victory and conquering in life, but how now they remind us that Jesus conquers all. I hide Trader Joes wreath cookies around our house for them to find or we do a wreath craft together (Christmas wreath crafts for kids).

Wreaths were a part of clothing for ancient Rome. Laurel wreaths were used by military and public officials in parades. Wreaths made out of olive leaves were worn by consuls and senators. During a period of the ancient Roman civilization, it was a custom for soldiers rescued from a siege to present a wreath made of grass to the commander of the rescuing force. In Christianity, the wreath represents the resurrection of Christ and therefore eternal life, more appropriately the victory of life over death. The crown of thorns was placed on the Head of Jesus at His execution by crucifixion and became a symbol of the Passion.

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Jesus is what Matters in this season…more than all the trimmings. 

“Let’s put on our jammies and make puppy chow…it’s time for Snoopy and Lucy and Charlie Brown. Let’s watch the real meaning of Christmas unfold- on national TV for the world to behold.”

This year I bought them Peanuts jammies from Target because I LOVE the Charlie Brown Christmas story that much. But we always have a Candlelight Christmas Tea Party in our pj’s, make puppy chow, and watch the Charlie Brown Christmas movie because it’s so incredibly good and tells the Christmas story in the most believable and beautiful way.

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Jesus Calls us to create beauty, because He is the maker of beauty.

“Break out the crayons, yarn, scissors, and glue, Today we make Christmas crafts, to enjoy all the year through.”

We like to read the first chapter of The Jesus Storybook Bible and talk about Jesus’ Creator-heart and all of the good things He made both at the foundation of the world and in our lives today. Then we do some sort of Christmas craft, usually something I find in the Target dollar bin, or something simple I find on Pinterest. There are SO many cool ones and the kids really like these to keep from year to year, or to give their art to others as a gift.

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Jesus is the Joy in the Journey to Bethlehem.

“Pack up your bags and bundle up tight, Onward we journey to Bethlehem tonight.”

Every year we chose a local hike.  We pack a picnic of beef jerky and dried fruit, make the kids carry literally everything, and then hike around just long enough for everyone to be a little tired, and a little muddy, and LOT over the journey. We find a quiet spot to read the Christmas story, and to talk about what it was like for Mary and Joe to have to travel all the way to Bethlehem in such difficult conditions. Then we pray and thank God that He guided them safely on their journey and us safely to Him. We’ve done it every year, even the years I was eight months pregnant, and it’s my very fave.

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Jesus is Still the Reason for this whole crazy season.

“Amidst all the tinsel and holly and lights, it’s easy to lose sight of that dark Christmas night. When angels and shepherds and wise men drew near, to focus on Jesus just as we do each year. Let’s stop and bask in the wonder of this night, so it’s simple magic is remembered just right.”

This is a great night to do a Nativity Craft, have a special Nativity breakfast-for-dinner, or read the Christmas story one more time. We have lots of good Christmas story books…our Little Golden one from 1952 is my favorite. There are so many cool nativity crafts online (Nativity crafts for kids) and this is a simple way to reset our hearts for Christmas Eve. 

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Jesus is the Life we celebrate today. (December 24th)

“And now at last, It’s finally here, Let’s sing “Happy Birthday” and gather near, Jesus has come, Joy to Behold! Let’s celebrate the best story ever told!”

Bake Jesus a birthday cake and celebrate that tomorrow is Christmas Day!

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