Advent activities 2017

Most years at Christmastime, I enjoy putting together an Advent calendar for my family.

The calendar varies from year to year – sometimes I focus on quiet reflection and sometimes on lively activity; sometimes I hang the activities in a long paper chain, or make a poster with flaps that open. I try to create a mix of inward-focused and outward focused ideas (bringing our family joy and bringing joy to others), and I customize it to include the holiday activities already in our plans – like a whole heap of music, as you will see.

Sometimes I try too hard and it stresses me out. But the kiddos and I love having something special to do each day, to build our joy in the coming of Christmas.

Here’s our family’s Advent list for 2017:

  1. Go ice skating as a family.
  2. Cut paper snowflakes.
  3. Attend a candlelit hymn sing.
  4. Prepare a baked item to give to a pastor or teacher.
  5. Create a Nativity scene from an unusual material (marshmallows, snow, metal, paper mache).
  6. Invite guests into our home to sing carols and share a snack.
  7. Make a handprint wreath.*
  8. Make music on stage.
  9. Spend the day with people we love.
  10. Listen to live Christmas music.
  11. Prepare a hot cocoa bar (chocolate spoons, various toppings and dippers).
  12. Make Christmas cards for people who will never give back to us.
  13. Write letters to Jesus.
  14. Play Handel’s Messiah on CD, in its entirety.
  15. Celebrate the birth of a human child.
  16. Drive to look at Christmas lights, with snacks, in our PJ’s.**
  17. Go Christmas caroling.
  18. Spend time praying for needs around the world.
  19. Invite one guest to dinner.
  20. Plan a family cozy night: popcorn, spiced cider, books.
  21. Eat a snowman / gingerbread man lunch.
  22. Watch a Christmas movie.
  23. Read holiday books from the library aloud.
  24. Draw names and give a “certificate of service” to one member of our family.
  25. Give what we have: Gather a basket of household items to share with a neighbor or friend.***

Additional ideas that might still fit into Christmas vacation after the 25th:

  • Care for someone else’s baby.
  • Send mail to cousins and friends.
  • Sing in the streets.
  • Draw names; give each family member $1.06 and take a jaunt to the dollar store for an impromptu mini-gift exchange. (This is my mom’s idea and I think it’s wonderful.)

Do you use an Advent calendar for your family? What simple activities bring you joy in December?


* Trace a handprint from each person in our family, cut out multiples on pretty paper, glue into a wreath with the fingertips facing out.

** The Christmas lights will not be eating our snacks, and our snacks will not be inside our PJ’s. I hope a few well-placed commas made that clear. Also I hope we are not in an accident that night.

*** We plan to gather items we’d like to give away: new soaps, some tea or hot drink mixes, homemade goodies, any household items that come to hand, maybe the piano – I don’t know – and show up at someone’s door with it all in a basket. This will be nicer than it sounds, I promise. If any of you mock me I may show up with it at YOUR door, so there.

What to buy our husbands

Confession: After I wrote about kids’ gifts, Claudia commented “Now what to buy our husbands…..?”

Truly.

So I made a flowchart to tackle that conundrum. Sorry I’m not more help. Click to view full size.

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To all of you, a merry Christmas Adam, which is what Kelly calls the day before Christmas Eve…

And a Merry Christmas, from our family to yours.

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Love,
Shari

Call back later

Confession: When my phone rang at 5:44 Monday morning, I thought it was the alarm, and groggily I punched around on its face a few times until it finally stopped.

That is how I sent a text template to Faith Builders Christian School (calling to inform parents of a two-hour delay), saying Sorry, I’m busy. Call back later.

After I stopped blushing, I wished I could’ve used that response on several more of the unexpected events December brought me.

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is the third person in my immediate family to face the c-word, not to mention my sister-in-law, my aunt, and my late grandma. Sorry cancer, we’re busy. Call back later. Mom is brave and calm, trusting Jesus to take care of her through chemo, hair loss, and a lumpectomy. But oh, we dread to walk this path again.

My baby got hand-foot-and-mouth disease and spent a miserable week with it. We missed a Christmas party or two. Sorry, I’m busy. Call back later.

And then (all three of these events occurred in the same week), my six-year-old daughter developed acute stomach pain at school one lunchtime, moving from a pained face to tears to sobbing to screaming in less than an hour.* We thought appendicitis, but when they did the CT scan in the emergency room, they said “If it is her appendix, it’s already ruptured. There’s a mass in there. We can’t tell for sure.” And they transferred us to Children’s Hospital. Sorry, my daughter is busy. Pain, pain, go away. Please, please.

*(This is how my friend Anna described it, and she was there.)

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Hours crawled past us.

“There’s a mass of tissue, not fluid. Probably an ovarian cyst,” the surgeons told us after the senior radiologist’s report. “We don’t know what to expect until we remove it. They’re usually benign, but we may need to take her ovary as well. Please sign here.”

I will sign if you will help my daughter. Please, please.

In surgery, the doctors found and corrected an ovarian torsion, the “mass” nothing but her own body tissue, swollen but healthy. Nothing to remove? Really? Oh Jesus, really? And because it was all laparoscopic, she had very little recovery time, no stitches, no scars. The path felt interminable as we walked, but in retrospect I could measure it—from the onset of the pain to the first apple juice post-surgery was exactly 24 hours. Two days after her operation, she returned to school for the dress rehearsal of her Christmas program. On the third day she was her own sassy self, having to be reminded not to run.

Our resurrection story, just in time for Christmas. Thank you, thank you Jesus! We felt his miraculous healing in the skill of the surgeons, the kindness of the staff, the gift of living in 2016.

I spoke with another woman I love. She was cutting vegetables at my sink. She said, “I know it’s supposed to be such a season of joy, but it’s hard. It’s always been a little hard for me.” I know, I know. There are so many things we cannot say.

Sometimes I think that if we really knew what was involved, we’d say no to everything. Sorry, I’m busy. Call back later. Picnics and marriage and doorways and friendship and babies—and it hurts worst when everyone around seems so happy.

(Didn’t you know they each carry their own sorrows?)

But if we said no, we would never have the answers, the miracles, the resurrection stories, love. Sometimes I think if we really knew the joy on the far side, we’d say yes, yes, yes! Pain is the unexpected ring of the telephone, the bad news. Jesus is the one who shows up at the door at the same moment, with a loaf of warm bread and a stiff drink. His body and blood. God with us.

He is not afraid of sorrow, a man intimately acquainted with grief. We don’t have to make ourselves rollicking and carefree to celebrate Christmas properly. We just have to watch for him, answer when he calls, pick up the pain and say hello.

He said it will be all right.

Kids gifts under $15

Okay, I’m glad you weren’t holding your breath waiting for this post, because first I got sick (that is, I fell unexpectedly into a vat of back pain) and second, my suggestions involve pretty basic stuff… the kind of classic, useful, and slightly educational gifts I love for my children to receive.

If you like to buy big gifts, use these as gift toppers or add-ons.

But thoughtful gifts don’t need to be expensive. There’s an endless array of lovely gifts you can give a child for five to fifteen dollars. When my daughter turned six this summer and unwrapped beautiful presents from many friends, I started making a list. Here are ten ideas to get you started.

1. Wallet ($5-10)

What child doesn’t want a special place to keep their change? There are awfully handsome varieties for both boys and girls. My daughters have also received the cutest purses, sometimes stuffed with treasures—tissues, gum, a writing tablet and pen. Slip in a dollar bill and she’ll love you for life.

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2. Watch ($10-$15)

Instant maturity advancement guaranteed. Besides the I’m-such-a-big-kid! factor, there’s no better incentive for learning to tell time. I always bought analog when my children were preschoolers and taught them the half hours, saving digital watches for the truly big kids.

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3. Sunglasses ($3-10)

It’s the end of the season now, but here’s another favorite. Plus they’re so photogenic.

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4. Clothing ($10-$15)

A cute sweater, fuzzy socks, a flannel shirt, a great hat, even a pack of undies patterned with Lego or princesses… Something that it makes them feel proud and happy to wear.

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5. Craft ($10)

I don’t even want to start the list under this category… it goes on and on. Weaving looms, beading stations, wooden models, paint-by-number, sand art, modeling clay or playfoam, paint-your-own toys, science kits and robot creators. Anything that gives a child hours of happy and wholesome play.

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6. Umbrella ($6-10)

Again, slightly seasonal—but adorable all the same. I try not to pep talk Walmart, but they stock the sweetest mini ones in their baby section. The only caveat is that sometimes it’s hard to avoid movie characters. I don’t object to all the movies, but I do object to becoming a walking advert.

In this case, the umbrella was coming to get her. Poor baby.

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7. Set of matchbox cars ($5-10)

Not just for boys, Matchbox cars provide endless playing opportunities from emergency vehicles to hot rods to construction equipment. At Regan’s last birthday party, we used new ones for cupcake toppers and let the guests take them home.

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8. Big pack of crayons or playdough ($5)

There’s nothing like art supplies to make me want to be a kid again. I love the giant packs of Crayola crayons, every imaginable color, with a built-in sharpener—or the sets of fifty different colored pencils. Washable paints and markers are another alternative. And new Play-Doh brings out the happiest, artsy creativity in a child.

(Don’t worry too much about the mess, moms. You know you have to let Play-Doh dry before sweeping the floor, right? Okay. Then it’s easy.)

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9. Personal care accessories ($10)

For a girl, buy a pretty hair brush and hand mirror, a new comb, some fun elastics or little clips. For either boy or girl, pick out some cool kid shampoos, tub finger paint, and bubble bath. Or a vibrating toothbrush and a tube of paste.

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10. Puzzle ($10)

Floor puzzles are great fun for toddlers. For puzzles our whole family loves, we pick designs by Charles Wysocki or Anthony Kleem, with their tiny details, bright colors, and homespun peace. We started a tradition of buying a new one before every Christmas vacation. (Older children may also enjoy Wysocki’s adult coloring books!) Our favorite of favorite Christmastime puzzles is O Night Divine by Richard Jesse Watson, a gift from our friends Bob and Jeanne.

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What would you add to the list?


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Christmas giving

“To: GOD! From: Kelly!

Dear God,

I’m exitet For you’r Birth-Day, at Chrismas!!

Love, Kelly”

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I know it’s terribly uncouth to mention the word “Christmas” too early, but I waited as long as I could. Could we just call it “The busy season of merriment and festivities that fast approacheth” for short?

It’s coming.

It’s been years since I’ve looked forward to it with such joy.

For one thing, Kelly has been longing for it since August, when we heard a chorus program that shook her world. They’re releasing their CD in December.

For another, it marks my baby’s first birthday. Everyone told me how much I would hate having a Christmas baby, but I loved waiting for The Baby both literally and figuratively, and I loved having all the hustle behind me by the time Christmas came, because of my obsessive nesting and preparing. (I think I bought the last of my presents on Halloween.) It was a very gentle holiday, quiet and reflective and sweet. Now each year when we celebrate Jesus and Jenny, the house will be festive for a month, and music will be playing, and twinkle lights will be sparkling.

Buying presents always creates a mixture of happiness and angst for me. Giving gifts is one of my favorite ways to love people, but giving so many at one time, and suiting them perfectly to their recipients, calls for much thought.

Three things have simplified the season for me.

First, shopping ahead and shopping online. I don’t ever again want to spend most of my December hunting frantically through crowded stores for just the thing for Uncle Dan. I love having so many good things arriving at my door in mysterious brown boxes and getting squirreled away under my bed.

Second, having our children exchange names among themselves. Now instead of supervising the headache of three to five cheap presents per child, I can help them choose one nice one. We set a $10 guideline: each child contributes five dollars of his own saved money from allowances and odd jobs, and we parents match it. It’s amazing what you can buy with ten dollars: 3-D puzzles, science kits, board books, endless crafts, durable toys. (I’ll share more ideas next time.)

And third, finding a workable plan for extended family giving.

In my Coblentz family, we’ve designated a different couple to do the planning each Christmas, starting with Dad and Mom the first year, my oldest brother and his wife the next year, and so on down through the family. We can each plan whatever giving we’d like, within reason. It has worked like a charm. One year we pooled our money to give to a sibling who’d had huge medical stress and expense. One year we drew names and exchanged homemade gifts. One year we gave only to the children, mailing packages to those who couldn’t come home. This year we’re stuffing stockings, choosing small items for everyone. I love it—endless variety, easy planning, and very little stress.

On the Zook side, we couples give simple presents to each other, often homemade: bath scrubs, drink mixes, cheese and deer bologna, sweet treats, whatever.

It’s a season of joy, when Christmas gifts ought not to become synonymous with overspending and stress. How do you bring simplicity and joy to your giving?

Or is this too early to be discussing it?


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