30+ Ideas for Activities Advent Calendars
I’ve always loved the idea of advent calendars and counting down to Christmas, but I wanted to make one that was about more than opening up a new piece of candy every day. I stumbled across an “activities” advent calendar on another blog, and I decided to tweak it to fit our family.1
What kind of activities will we include in our advent calendar? We’re going to center our activities on three themes:
- Giving: We prefer to emphasize the spirit of giving over the Christmas holidays.
- Learning: We want to learn about all of the different traditions that our friends and neighbors celebrate during this special time of year.
- Fun: And, of course, the holidays are fun.
So with those three things in mind, here are thirty activity ideas for advent calendars that center around giving, all-inclusive cultural and religious education, and fun. I’ve tried to make everything on this list appropriate for just about any age – from toddler on up. And you can easily turn this list of 30 general ideas into a list of 100 or more, simply by planning to celebrate different festivals on the appropriate day, learning about a new holiday or tradition on several days, attending a few different holiday-themed events, reading a different book or watching a different video each day, etc. Do as much as is appropriate and interesting for your family!
Keep reading to the bottom to see the 24 activities we’ve chosen for our family’s Activities Advent Calendar.
Emphasizing the Spirit of Giving
- Shop for a new toy to donate to a charitable organization.
- Make holiday cards and take them to a nursing/retirement home. They don’t need to be perfect, the recipients will be much more interested in seeing your cute kids. (I would suggest not bringing in sugary treats – many of the recipients are unable to eat sweets.)
- Donate gently used toys, books, and clothes to a shelter. Get your little ones involved in the process – but don’t force it (and don’t be frustrated if very little ones don’t understand) – it’s not the spirit of giving if it’s not given freely.
- Celebrate St. Nicholas Day! St. Nicholas Day falls on December 6th. Read about the celebration beforehand (there are several books you could check out, including The Legend of St. Nicholas: A Story of Christmas Giving), then bring the story to life by filling some (paper) wooden shoes with small goodies and handing them out to friends.
- Give out secret gifts to neighbors and friends. The gifts don’t have to be expensive or elaborate – make extra ornaments, bake cookies, the point is to do something fun with your child and then have even more fun by giving it away.
- Perform a random act of kindness for a stranger. Need ideas? Here is a list of 155 ideas for random acts of kindness.
- Do something around the house to make life easier for a family member. Whether it’s picking up a sibling’s toys, straightening a parent’s work space, or helping clean up the kitchen, pitch in as a family and do something nice for each other.
- Focus on being kind to strangers and clerks at the grocery store. Give another driver the nice parking spot. Return someone’s shopping cart. Make pleasant small talk with the clerk when you check out. Smile at every person you pass. Hold the door open for someone.
- Mail handwritten notes or holiday cards. Everyone enjoys getting mail, so whether you decide to send out holiday cards or just simple notes, let friends and family know that you are thinking of them.
- Make a list of love and appreciation. Sit down as a family tonight and spend some time talking about what you love and appreciate about every person. Be sure to have someone take notes, then give the notes to each family member – they could provide just the pick-me-up someone needs on a bad day.
Learning About the Many Cultural and Religious Holiday Traditions
- Find cultural/religious events in your area that are open to the public, and attend one or more as a family. You can check your area’s tourism calendar, check to see if any of the Unitarian Universalist churches have events calendars, or go directly to the websites of various cultural/religious centers in your city.
- Make a list of special dates and celebrate at least one tradition from another culture on the appropriate day. Jennifer from True Confessions of a Real Mommy made a great list for last year’s December Carnival of Natural Parenting – her family celebrated everything from Hannukah to Bodhi Day, from Winter Solstice to Pancha Ganapati.
- Check out books from the library on how children around the world celebrate winter holidays. Here are a few to consider: Eight Winter Nights (A Family Hanukkah Book); The Shortest Day (Celebrating the Winter Solstice); The Spirit of Christmas; We Celebrate Winter (Holidays and Festivals). Recommend your favorite books in the comments!
- Have a game night and listen to music from other cultures/religions. Enjoy some tunes while your family plays games (or some other fun activity – crafts, baking cookies, etc.). Here are a few CDs you can check out from your library to get you started: Beautiful Darkness: Celebrating the Winter Solstice; Celebrate Hanukkah; KWANZAA for Young People (and Everyone Else); White Christmas. What are your favorite holiday CDs?
- Do a craft project that represents another culture’s holiday tradition. Look online for ideas, or you might find one of the projects from The Kids’ Multicultural Art Book or Global Art: Activities, Projects, and Inventions from Around the World are appropriate.
- Bake a special treat from another culture. Have you ever eaten a potato latke? How about Madhupayasa (Sweet Milk Rice)? Find a few recipes that look good from other holiday traditions and make them as a family. Your best bet for finding recipes is probably online, but you might also check out The Kids’ Multicultural Cook Book.
- Play a traditional game from another culture. From Spin the Dreidle to the Snowman Game, children all over the world play games to celebrate their own winter holidays. Search for games online and play a few as a family.
- Watch a video. Search YouTube or your library for educational videos on other holiday traditions.
- Become a pen pal. Give your child the gift of friendship – find a cross-cultural pen pal. Your child’s first letter can share your own winter holiday traditions and ask about the pen pal’s. The Amazing Kids! Penpals Program is an educational nonprofit that offers to match your child with a pen pal for a $10 enrollment fee.
- Plan a party. If you have friends who would like to learn about other cultures, and especially if you have friends who celebrate different traditions, organize a gathering (or two or three) to celebrate other holidays. Everyone can pitch in with food, games, and fun learning opportunities.
Winter Holiday Fun
- Bake cookies! Even better, bake cookies and participate in a holiday cookie exchange. Yum.
- Make homemade ornaments that represent your child’s age. Whether you use plain bulbs and paint to make handprint ornaments, make and paint saltdough ornaments, or choose a picture of your child to put in a handmade frame, this is a tradition you will cherish for years.
- Admire a local holiday light display.
- Have a family holiday movie night. Enjoy your favorite movie snacks and watch one of the holiday classics!
- Decorate a space in your home. Select a space that everyone in your family enjoys and find a way to decorate it to make it warm, cozy, and full of holiday spirit. Whether you use homemade or store bought decorations, do something that will make everyone feel festive.
- Attend a holiday-themed play or event. There are usually no shortage of fun and affordable holiday events – kids’ companies that put on musicals (like The Nutcracker), tree lightings and parades, a visit to Santa, etc.
- Enjoy the cold. If you’ve been blessed with snow, then get outside and revel in the white stuff: make a snowman, do some snow painting, make snow ice cream, go sledding. If you don’t have snow, see if you have any ice skating venues. And if you live in a warmer climate? Create your own chilly atmosphere – make ice cream or fruit pops at home, create paper snowflakes to decorate your windows – bring winter to you.
- Have a candlelit dinner with homemade ice candles. Create a wintery atmosphere at your dinner table with ice candles. To make ice candles, fill an empty tin can with rocks and place in a bowl of water – use enough rocks that the tin can does not sink all the way to the bottom. Freeze the water, then carefully remove the can and the bowl. Put a candle where the can was, place the ice candle in a bigger shallow dish, and voila – ice and fire together.2
- Create a winter-themed craft. Choose an appropriate winter craft and have fun creating it as a family. Here are some great lists of crafts to choose from: Cold Weather Crafts; CraftIdeas.info; Kaboose Winter and Snowman Crafts; Pinterest Winter Craft Ideas.
- Explore winter’s traditional fruits and vegetables. Give your child the gift of a sweet and tart pomegranate, replenish your body’s vitamin C levels with plenty of citrus, try baking with parsnips or turnips – do something new that incorporates winter fruits and veggies. Focus a day’s meals (or at least dinner and dessert) on the fruits of winter, and buy local if you can!
So what activities are we putting in our family’s Activities Advent Calendar? Some of these are specific to our location, but they should give you some more general ideas of activities you can plan with your own family.
While Advent technically starts this year on November 27, we’ll start our activities on December 1st. But before December 1st, we will start talking and learning about the many different winter holidays that other religions and cultures celebrate. We have placed holds on the following books at our local library: Eight Winter Nights (A Family Hanukkah Book); Room for a Little One; The Shortest Day (Celebrating the Winter Solstice); The Spirit of Christmas; and The Trees of the Dancing Goats. I am also going to a local bookstore to find a book about St. Nicholas, since our library does not carry anything age appropriate.
Our 24 Advent Activities
- December 1: Make handprint/footprint ornaments (and possibly some other type of giftable craft that incorporates the little ones’ hands or feet).
- December 2: Shop for a new toy to donate to a charitable organization.
- December 3: Attend a local puppet show about “Treasures From Toyland.”
- December 4: Today we will focus on the Christian Christmas holiday. We will read stories and listen to (and sing!) traditional Christian Christmas carols.
- December 5: Today we will mail notes to friends and family members that tell them how we love and appreciate them. We will also make lists of what we love and appreciate about each other.
- December 6: Celebrate St. Nicholas Day! We will bring the story of St. Nicholas to life by going through our old toys and clothes and donating them.
- December 7: Tonight we will listen to holiday music from various cultures – including traditional holiday tunes from our own.
- December 8: Learn about how pioneers celebrated Christmas. Kieran loves the Little House series, so I thought it would be fun to learn more about how pioneers celebrated Christmas. One of our local museums has a special exhibit this December all about this very topic, so we’re going.
- December 9: Cooking with traditional winter foods. We’ll sample some traditional winter fruits and veggies.
- December 10: Attend a production of The Nutcracker put on by a local children’s group.
- December 11: Today we will do something kind for a family member – helping pick up, playing extra games, taking on a chore that someone else usually does – we’ll help make each other smile and feel special.
- December 12: Sample traditional holiday foods. I’m thinking potato latkes, rice pudding, and glogg (for the adults).
- December 13: Today we will focus on being kind and saying thank you to strangers and workers that we encounter.
- December 14: Deliver homemade gifts and ornaments to friends and neighbors.
- December 15: Bake cookies for our local parenting group’s annual cookie exchange.
- December 16: Make snow ice cream. (Well, this is a hopeful activity, since we never know when/if it will snow. It will be moved to an appropriate day, or we’ll just have a different special treat if we don’t see any snow.)
- December 17: Yule log walk and decorating. Weather permitting, we’ll take a walk to find a yule log and natural things to decorate it with.
- December 18: We’ll visit Union Station and tour the holiday displays.
- December 19: Drive through a local holiday light display.
- December 20: Hanukkah begins at sundown tonight! We will read our two books about Hanukkah (The Trees of the Dancing Goats and Eight Winter Nights (A Family Hanukkah Book)).3 Note: In 2012, Hanukkah begins at sundown on December 8th and goes through December 16.
- December 21: Celebrate Yule! We will read our Winter Solstice book (The Shortest Day (Celebrating the Winter Solstice)) and make and paint sun salt dough ornaments. We can also burn our yule log in our fire pit outside.
- December 22: Wrap Christmas presents for family. Wrapping presents is usually a fun time for us – we celebrate with music and treats and giggles.
- December 23: Tonight we will enjoy a family movie night – Polar Express!
- December 24: Have a candlelit dinner with homemade ice candles.
- Many thanks to friends on Facebook and in my local parenting group who helped spark many of these ideas! ↩
- Idea courtesy of Family Education. ↩
- I have not decided yet whether or not we will try to light candles each night for the next eight nights, but if we do, I found basic instructions at How to Light a Hanukkah Menorah. ↩
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"30+ Ideas for Activities Advent Calendars"
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