So… Advent, which is the Christian term used to describe the season leading up to Christmas, officially started this past Sunday (11/27) and will continue through Christmas Day on December 25th. Alternately (and, thankfully, for people like me who will always wait until the very last minute to do ANYTHING), it’s also pretty widely accepted these days to begin Advent traditions on December 1st instead. That was… yesterday. FYI.
We started last night – sort-of. Mostly, Nora cried and ripped the Bible I was reading from, the day’s Jesse Tree ornament broke, Sam spilled water all over the puzzle we were working, I couldn’t get the cute countdown stickers I “made” to print, and Jeff and I were really just dreaming of bedtime during the prayer. So, you know, it was exactly how I envisioned our Advent — full of joy, hope, and peace. #reallife
This is my sixth Christmas with a little person in the house, and I can tell you from experience that nothing ruins a season like a grumpy Mom, so my goal – always – is to avoid that. Still though, I really do WANT to do special things for and with my kids in December. I love that Christmas is celebrated all month, and making that time fun and meaningful actually is important to me. I’ve tried several different things over the last five years, but the main lesson I’ve learned is that SIMPLE IS BETTER. In the words of G.K. Chesterton (and quoted recently in the Christmas traditions episode of The God Centered Mom Podcast), “Anything worth doing, is worth doing badly.”
Now is the time for you to re-read the second paragraph up there… Advent is worth doing to me, and I’m totally doing it badly.
In case you haven’t noticed from my lack of blog posts lately (or the fact that I’ve whined about it a few times here already), I’m currently in a super demanding season at work and experiencing a bit of overwhelm. (Read: I’m-behind-in-virtually-every-area-of-life.) I’ve been working on this post for a couple of weeks actually, and it’s taken on quite a few iterations so far; but, when the start of Advent (and then the alternate start of Advent) came and went this week, I decided I better just wrap it up and throw it out there – badly. In fact, I convinced myself that maybe I’m not the only mom that really wants to be intentional about how I spend my time this month, that really wants to build traditions and make memories with my family, but that – honestly – is tired, stressed out, and running late ALREADY. The *last* thing I need right now is more to add to my To Do list. Can anyone relate?
If so, I proudly present to you… The Lazy Mom’s Guide to Christmas and Advent:
Below are seven – VERY LOW KEY – ideas that will be meaningful and fun for the holidays with little ones, but require very little effort/time on your part and can be started as soon as tonight – or any time that works for you. Pick one or combine lots. Throw out the things that sound stressful. There are no rules, just get started, and be ok with doing it badly if you have to. Enjoy! <<Warning: Some of the links below are affiliate. Click at your own risk.>>
1. Follow a reading plan.
For the last few years, we have followed a simple Advent reading schedule using Sam’s Jesus Storybook Bible. This sweet children’s Bible does such a beautiful job tying all of the Old Testament stories many of us grew up hearing in Sunday School back to the much larger story of a Savior. At Christmas, in particular, it’s fun to start at the beginning (with Adam and Eve in Genesis) and watch the details of God’s perfect plan unfold as we move towards Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem. This is, by far, the most important (in my humble opinion) thing we do throughout this season. Jeff and I usually alternate reading each night when we do bedtime stories. It takes five minutes max, and if we miss one night, we just two (or three or four) the next. Not to be pushy, but if you don’t do anything else (which is 100% fine), I recommend starting here – even if your kids are tiny (we started when Sam was about 2). Reading plans all over the internet, but here’s one we’ve used in the past (with a cute, free printable) to get you started. (Btw, there are tons of plans to go along with other Bible versions etc. if you have older kids or prefer something else – just Google.)
Here’s a simple explanation of the Jesse Tree tradition and some resources if you want to try to make/do one yourself —
2. Light a candle.
This probably wins the award for being the easiest thing on this list, but it really is significant and lovely. During Advent, be intentional about lighting a candle each night to countdown to Christmas. If you want to be formal about it, you can buy or make your own Advent wreath with four purple candles in a circle symbolizing hope, love, joy, and peace, and a final pink candle representing Jesus as the Light of the World. Simply light one candle each week (or each night of the week) with your nighttime reading if you do that or even just at dinner (you’d be surprised how “fancy” and special it feels to kids to have a candlelit dinner). OR, for an even simpler take, just pick one candle to light each night – the message about light in darkness is still the same.
If you want, try a candle (like this one) that will actually burn down over the course of 24 days, OR one (like this – shown above) where you check off each day. You could also probably make your own pretty simply with a plain glass votive & a sharpie – but that’s getting a little too “crafty” for me.
3. Do a countdown.
Advent is all about waiting and expectation (for the coming of Jesus), and there’s just something fun and exciting about a countdown of any sort. We’re doing the exceptionally fancy put-an-X-on-the-calendar-with-a-black-marker countdown method (and using an old felt pocket calendar from my own childhood in Sam’s room), but I think you can do exponentially better than that with a tiny bit of effort…. If you have kids old enough to cut and staple, just have them make a garland (of chain links, paper snowflakes, whatever) with 25 pieces (or however many days are left), then tear one off each day until Christmas. If you’re feeling crazy, write a couple (don’t go overboard now) of fun things to do or little acts of kindness inside a few of the links as a surprise when it is torn off (see #8 for some ideas).
Of course, if you’d rather just buy something (hello Amazon Prime 2-day delivery), there are LOTS of cute options available – like this magnetic one from Melissa and Doug, this fabric nativity countdown, a classic chocolate-filled countdown, or this little window-opener that actually matches the puzzle I have (see #4). *I also love this one from Anthropologie – of course – and all of these from Land of Nod, and this precious Star Wars themed one from Pottery Barn Kids (50% off today only).
*Pro tip: A lot of these calendars have little pouches meant to put candy or little dollar-store treats in for each day. You can, of course, do that, but remember that YOU set the precedence for your family. If you don’t do that to begin with, your kids will never expect it. Print out some scripture (maybe from your reading plan) on little paper and stick it in there instead, fold up little “love letters” to your kids (technically, you only need to stay one note ahead of them), or – like I mentioned above – put “instructions” for some fun activities and/or acts of kindness in just a few of the pouches. You’re in charge!
4. Work a Christmas puzzle or Advent “kit.”
I bought a 1000 piece puzzle of a Christmas scene (this exact one) this year and threw all the pieces out on our dining room table vowing to leave them there until it’s done. (I’m working on getting over my need to have everything neat and tidy all the time – this is a baby step.) My original intention was just that this would help us to slow down and spend some time together over the next few weeks and was a good – slightly more personal – twist on watching Christmas movies every night. Then, last night, we read the first story in the the Jesus Storybook Bible and it actually said: “At the center of the Story is a baby, the child upon whom everything will depend. Every story whispers his name. From Noah to Moses to the great King David—every story points to him. He is like the missing piece in a puzzle—the piece that makes all the other pieces fit together.” Don’t you love when that happens? I totally felt like the most intentional mom ever – at least until Nora tore the page and Sam spilled the water. 😉
Anyway, I’ve actually been surprised at how much Sam (and Jeff) have enjoyed the puzzle so far – and I love the idea of making this is a simple tradition — something we get out or buy each year with our Christmas decorations right after Thanksgiving and work on together all month. I’ll let you know how it goes.
As another option, I’ve heard a lot of great things about these fun Advent calendar builds from Lego and PLAYMOBIL. They are a bit expensive – and, apparently, sell out fast – but I’m sure kids would love them (and you could probably recycle year after year).
*Pro tip: If you have super little kids, watch for these to go on sale after Christmas and snag one so you’ll be all set to go next year! (The same method works for the countdown calendars in #3 too!)
5. Read Christmas books.
A few years ago I tried wrapping up 25 Christmas books and opening/reading one every night in December. This was cute, but I HATE wrapping. Now, instead, I just take ALL of our Christmas books and put them in a giant basket near our Christmas tree and try to read one every night(ish) before we do our little devotion. Some nights we read three or four. Some night we read none. The kids love having “new books” to look at (again, I just pack these up with my decorations and pull them out the day after Thanksgiving), and it’s another way to spend good – quality time together.
The first year, when Sam was super little, I bought a bunch of inexpensive paperback Christmas books and asked for Christmas books from grandparents, etc. Now, between buying one or two (I always date them in the front cover) each year and gifts, etc. we have WAY more than 25. Our books are about everything from snowmen, reindeer, and Santa to Jesus and helping others. Here’s one of my personal favorites that you’ve maybe never heard of —
*Pro tip: Ask your parents if they have any of your old Christmas books from childhood. You’ll LOVE re-reading them, and your kids will think it’s so cool that they were yours!
6. Set up a nativity.
Um… I’m not sure if this even counts because it’s not actually doing anything, but one of my very favorite things to do every year is to pull the kids’ nativity set out and let them play with it all season. Yes, Baby Jesus ends up on top of the stable and the three wise men often ride Hot Wheels, but this provides LOTS of entertainment for both of my kids (I’ve been amazed at its ability to transcend their age difference so much – I think it has to do with the fact that it is only “out” for a few weeks each year, but Sam hasn’t outgrown it a bit, and Nora loves it just as much) and great opportunities to talk about the story of Jesus’ birth.
We have the Fisher-Price Little People Nativity (pictured), and I can’t recommend it highly enough; but Melissa and Doug, Raz, and even Pottery Barn make great kid-friendly sets too!! (These make excellent family gifts if you’re looking for something to ask for or give – that Raz one is on my list! We also got a nicer – grown-up – nativity as a wedding gift, and I thought that was the BEST idea. Keep that in your back pocket – especially if you’re going to any winter weddings this year.)
*Pro tip: Keep the original box that the set comes in so you can pack it up at the end of the season – and replace the batteries (if needed) then.
7. Focus on 12 (flexible) days instead of 24 – no pear trees or french hens required.
This is more of a general concept than an idea, per se, but it took me a while to figure this out, and it makes a HUGE difference.
There is so much pressure to do something every day during December, but pressure = stress in my book. Some days, I can barely get myself dressed and fed – there’s no way I’m going to be able to do a Christmas craft or activity every.single.day for 24 days (trust me, I tried and failed – miserably). Instead, I like the “12 Days of Christmas” approach. Choosing only 12 things to do averages out to only about every other day (or less if you double up some, like I do) and allows you the flexibility to fit activities into your schedule when they work for you – i.e. keep the somewhat more complicated things for lighter weekends or over holiday vacation time, and put easy ones on ordinary evenings at home.
For me, this year, this has taken the form (or, err, will take the form of once I finally get my printer to work) a list of 12 super-small acts of kindness and a few (for us, 10ish) fun holiday activities that we probably would have done anyway (like attend our children’s theater Christmas show, go to a parade, and bake Christmas cookies). For the acts of kindness, I tried to think of things that could be done after school or as part of our ordinary routines already and would be easy/meaningful for Sam.
Once I had all my ideas, I typed up each list in red and green on mini return address labels, and will just peel and stick them on the calendar as we go. Some of the things – like going to see the Nutcracker – have specific dates, so they can be placed in advance, but the rest will just be chosen, done, and stuck on a whim. If we don’t get to everything, no big deal!
Here’s a peek (from Instagram) at the so-not-fancy calendar I “made” (taken this afternoon once I finally got the darn labels to print) —
And a screen shot of what I put on my “lists” in case you’re interested —
For more ideas of Christmas activities or random acts of kindness to do with kids, check out the following links and choose what you like —
Emily Ley: Random Acts of Kindness Printable ($20 – all proceeds go to charity / not an affiliate link)
Coffee & Crayons: 100 Acts of Kindness of Kindness with Kids (wouldn’t this be cool to use as a “New Year’s Resolution” thing and try to do them all in 2017?)
*Pro Tip: There’s nothing magical about the number 12, so start small and try just FOUR things – one every week in December – or make your list 10 if you want. Just do what feels fun and natural and not overwhelming.
Alright, there you go! I hope something above is just what you needed to get you started towards a purposeful, but peaceful Christmas/Advent season. This year, we are doing a combination of all eight things, but on a very small scale with LOTS of grace! If you’re doing something I didn’t mention here – or just want to share your family’s traditions – I’d LOVE to hear about them in the comments. And, if you do absolutely nothing of this sort, that’s TOTALLY FINE TOO.
BTW, in case you’re wondering/interested, I’ve written before about our family’s Christmas traditions of Jesus and Santa (here), how I try to keep things from being too overwhelming by saying “No” and embracing imperfections (here), and a little about our season last year (here). I’m also working on a post sharing more about our gift-giving “philosophy” + what my kids are getting this year and my favorite gifts to give for MONDAY (stay tuned) and lots of other fun gift-giving and holiday-themed posts/ round-ups in the next few weeks. (I hope you aren’t sick of those kinds of things yet!!)
In the meantime, have a great weekend! (Links & Likes will be back consistently in the new year.)
P.S. If you like this post, you may want to also check out The God-Centered Mom Podcast Episode 142: Christmas Traditions with Little Ones and The Simple Show Episode 49: Guilt-Free Holidays – they were both encouraging to me and provided lots of the “inspiration” for this post.