This post was written by Laura from The Mindful Mom Blographer, a wonderful guide to reducing mental clutter through mindful and intentional living, minimalism, and zero waste. While Laura is a parent and I’m not, I really loved this post and felt like it could be useful to you whether you have a family or not. I’d love to get some of these traditions started with my friends as a kind of group advent calendar. The possibilities are endless!

My family always had an advent calendar growing up. I LOVED going in each day starting December 1st and finding the date, opening up the door, and grabbing my piece of candy. I have such fond memories of it that I knew once I had Little E that I would want to continue.

Fast forward a few years and, while I still love incorporating an advent calendar, I was finding that I wanted to do something more than just eating candy. I wanted to do something that aligned with my values (environment, helping others, spending time with family, etc), brought me joy, and helped me reduce mental clutter. 

I found that through a kindness/activity-based advent calendar.

A kindness/activity-based advent calendar is exactly what it sounds like: instead of candy each day of the advent calendar, there is a different activity, holiday tradition, holiday activity, etc. We have done this now for two years and it has been amazing. It really has brought forward the true meaning of the holiday (at least to us) and allowed us to focus on that instead of the stressful and overwhelming parts.

I will preface by saying that in order to make the transition from feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and trying to cram everything in each holiday season, my family and I scaled way back. Doing this helped us enjoy the activities in the advent calendar – which in turn provided us with being able to really enjoy the season.

My advice: if this is something you’re interested in, but worried it’s just going to end up being yet another item on your to-do list, maybe only pick a couple activities to start out with. Or better yet, cut down the number of things on your to-do list. 

I know, I know. That sounds scary. And impossible. And [insert excuse here].

But guess what. Yes, it may be a little scary. But it is totally possible. And if it is something that you truly want to do, it will be well worth it.

I’m not going to get into the specifics in this post about how to do it. But never fear, I have an entire post dedicated to telling you exactly how to simplify your season. To reduce overwhelming schedules and to-do lists, stress, and anxiety. To really pay attention to and have time for what matters in your life and during the holiday season. You can find my ultimate guide on how to simplify the season here.

If you’re ready to take on a kindness/activity-based advent calendar, I have a couple of options.

First, I created this free printable with 24 ideas that you can cut up and put in your own advent calendar (I also included a few blank squares so you can write in your own activity if you want). The activities on the printables are some of our favorite holiday traditions and pay it forward activities, and ones I have come to look forward to each year.

The second option is to take a look at the list of ideas below. I have compiled all the activities in my free printable, as well as many additional ideas as well!

I’ve broken up the list into tradition-type activities and random-acts-of-kindness activities.

Tradition-Based Advent Calendar Ideas

  • Fun family photo: start a tradition where you take a fun family holiday photo somewhere meaningful.
  • Visit SantaIf you have any kids in your life, take them to see Santa! There is so much magic in kids around Christmas.
  • Write Santa a letterDid you know your kids can write Santa a letter, and HE WILL RESPOND? The United States Postal Service helps Santa out with this task each year. You can find more information here.
  • Build a gingerbread house (using recyclable and upcycled materials): Save any recycling, boxes, etc that you could use to create a low waste gingerbread house! Cereal boxes, pasta boxes, milk cartons, plastic bottles, glass jars, etc are all great options. Get creative!
  • Holiday colouring (use recycled paper/reuse printer paper): There are tons of holiday colouring sheets on Pinterest, or…I made some special holiday coloring sheets (one for kids, one for adults or older kids, especially for The Mindful Mom Blographer readers!
  • Make snowflakes (use recycled paper/reuse printer paper) or another holiday craft: Paper snowflakes are a really fun activity that can be tailored to any skill level. Check out a tutorial here!
  • Game night: Get all ‘hygge‘, and have a family game night by the Christmas tree.
  • Read: Read a Christmas book! Two of our favourites are (check your local libraries and/or second-hand stores first!):
  • Dance Party: My family loves doing dance parties. Crank up the holiday tunes, and dance away!
  • Movie Night: The holidays would not be complete at our house without watching a couple of our favourite holiday movies. They are (check your local libraries and/or second-hand stores first, OR, rent them online):

  • DIY ornaments: My mom always had a Christmas ornament for us to make together every year. We would hand them out to grandparents, aunts/uncles, neighbours, and friends. It has become a very fun memory, and I love pulling out some of the old ornaments when it is time to decorate the Christmas tree. The tradition has continued with Little E, and I can’t wait to figure out what we’re going to do this year. I think I’m going to pull something from my zero waste crafts Pinterest board for inspiration!
  • Make giftsAs I talk about in my ultimate zero waste, minimalist friendly, and mindful gift ideas guide (over 125 ideas), I am a huge gift giver. Yes, even as a minimalist and zero waste liver. The key for my family has been to change the types of gifts we give and ask for. I talk all about it in the post linked above, so I won’t go into detail here, but basically, so many DIY and consumable gifts are perfect for those looking to keep down clutter and be mindful of their waste. This year I plan to make almost all (if not all) our gifts. As I mentioned above, making gifts has become an event that I look forward to; not something to add or cross off of my to-do list.
  • Bake: Baking is a holiday tradition my family and I don’t miss. If you don’t have a ton of time to devote to baking, pick a couple of items and make it a family event! My family loves making lefse and a handful of classic cookies.
  • Call Santa: If visiting and writing to Santa isn’t enough, you can also call him! Here are a few different options:
  • Christmas Lights:Put on your PJs, grab a cup of hot tea or cocoa, jump into the car, and go explore the neighbourhood looking for Christmas lights. My family and I LOVE doing this!
  • Feed the birds/squirrels: Make a winter birdfeeder like these adorable ones from My Sweet Lilac
  • Treat yo’self: Make a family/friend date to go and get your favourite holiday treat somewhere!
  • Decorate: Yes, decorating for the holidays is part of my family’s advent calendar! I love decorating. I love to dim the lights while the Christmas tree glows. I love adding ornaments and reminiscing about the memories that come along with them. I love drinking a hot mug of something delicious while doing it. Decorating isn’t just something to cross off on the to-do list. We make it a family event!
  • Get outside: Winter activities can be so fun! Snowshoeing, sledding, building a snowman, winter hiking, and skiing…I could go on and on. Get bundled up, enjoy the outdoors, then come back in for a steaming hot beverage!

Pay-it-forward Advent Calendar Ideas

  • Donate winter gear (hat, mittens, scarves, coats, boots, etc): check with your local church, homeless shelter, women’s shelter, etc. to see if they could use any winter gear
  • Buy someone a snack: Leave money on the vending machine
  • Buy someone a movie rental: Leave money in your Redbox return for the next person
  • Buy someone parking: Leave money in the parking meter
  • Be friendly: Say hello to someone you don’t know
  • Gratitude: Send a thank-you note to a house that has a beautiful garden, Christmas lights, etc.
  • Make and donate blankets: Make fleece blankets for local children’s hospitals. Be sure to check the website of your local hospital for any blanket guidelines before dropping any off.
  • Donate new blankets: Donate blankets to which helps provide security blankets to kids in need
  • Speak up:Tell someone you know how influential they were/are in your life (or write them a letter)
  • Text someone: Text a friend each day and tell them you’re thinking of them – no response needed
  • Give the gift of time: Let someone go in front of you in line at the store
  • Praise: Gush about an employee who provided great service to their manager
  • Babysit: Offer to babysit a family member or friend’s kids for free
  • Pet sit/walk: Offer to pet sit, or walk a neighbors dog for free
  • Tip well: Leave a large tip for someone who gave great service
  • Share treats: Send treats to your local fire station/police station
  • Share a beverage: Bring coffee/tea to a friend, coworker, or family member. Just because.
  • Treat your coworkers: Bring bagels/donuts for your co-workers
  • Help out: Do a family member’s chore for them without asking for anything in return
  • Mail: Send a card to a friend
  • Thank your mail carrier: We gave ours a little goody bag with a couple of treats, a granola bar, and a thank you letter.
  • Give a gift to your neighbours: We made bags of homemade potpourri (oranges, cinnamon stick, and cranberries) with instructions to boil the contents in a pan on the stove or crockpot. We received so many compliments!
  • Make someone smile: Compliment three strangers in one day.
  • Pay it forward: Pay for someone’s coffee in line behind you, buy someone lunch, or send a friend a care package anonymously. View other pay it forward ideas on my Pinterest board.
  • Gratitude: Write down or talk about three things you are thankful for today
  • Donate money: Donate to a charity of your choice
  • Donate to animals: Make a donation to a local animal hospital or shelter. We usually donate old towels and blankets to a local pet hospital
  • Toys for Tots: Buy a brand new toy and donate it,  unwrapped, to Toys for Tots.
  • Volunteer: So many organisations are looking for volunteers this time of year and after. Look up local organisations that match your values and ask what you can do to help.
  • Bookmarks: Make bookmarks out of kids old artwork, and share them in library books. We used some of my son’s old paintings, wrote inspirational quotes on them, and sent them with our library book returns
  • Cards for hospitalised kidsThis organisation brings holiday or general-themed cards to kids who are in the hospital or Ronald McDonald houses.
  • Create craft kits for hospitalised kids or their siblings: Many children’s hospitals accept new craft kits that you can put together as a group or with your family. The craft kids are distributed within the hospital. Check your local children’s hospital website for more info!
  • Pick up trash: go for a walk or play outside, and pick up any trash you find along the way
  • Shovel: Help a neighbour shovel their driveway and/or sidewalk after a snow storm
  • Donate food: Donate to a local food bank, bring a meal to a friend or neighbour, or donate to an organisation like Meals on Wheels.
  • Make a call: Call a friend or family member you haven’t talked to in a while – just to say hi.

Of course, these lists aren’t at all exhaustive, and there are hundreds of more kindness-based activities, as well as traditions!

Along with the kindness/traditions based advent calendar, I have seen a couple of other advent calendar ideas out there. Although I haven’t tried any of them, I wanted to share to provide a few more ideas.

Decluttering Advent Calendar

If you’ve been here a while, you probably know I’m a big advocate of decluttering, both physically and mentally, so naturally, I had to talk about the two different decluttering advent calendar versions I’ve seen.

The first version is each day you find at least one item to declutter. At the end of the 24 days you have 24 items to donate! (note from Fran: if you can, why not try and sell these items, give them to friends who may love them as an extra holiday treat, or host a swap? You can read more here on why, but try to make donating your last resort!)

The second version is similar to above, except that instead of just one item each day, you have to declutter the number of items that match the days. So for example, on the first day, you’d declutter one item. On the 13th day, 13 items…and so on. I’m going to guess you get the idea.

If this sounds up your alley, I’ve got some great resources for you!

Reverse Advent Calendar

A reverse advent calendar consists of compiling shelf-stable food and toiletries items to donate at the end of the 24 days. You can choose to add one item per day, 24 items all at once, 24 items per person or family, or donating more than 24 items! You could gather items from friends and family by sharing this idea and go about it that way in addition to your contribution. You could donate $1 per day for a total of $24 to donate to a local shelter at the end of the advent calendar. The possibilities are endless!

Advent Calendar Options

Now that you have a plethora of ideas for your kindness/traditions based advent calendar, what are you going to put the ideas in?

I have a wooden advent calendar with drawers for each day that I am absolutely in love with. I’ve had it for years. However, if I was going to look for a new one, I would start with:

  • My local thrift shop
  • My local Buy Nothing group
  • Asking family and friends if they have one they’re looking to get rid of
  • Facebook marketplace or Craigslist
  • Make one (I LOVE this one made out of toilet paper tubes)

If you don’t want a physical advent calendar, you could hang ideas on the wall. You could write down all the ideas you want to do and throw them in a bucket. Another option would be to just have the ideas all in a list. Get creative. Do what will work for your family. And most of all, have fun and enjoy the season!

To read more of Laura’s work, and show her some love, check out The Mindful Mom Blographer here