a clutter-free advent calendar.

November 25, 2015

a clutter-free advent calendar | reading my tea leavesGrowing up, my mom introduced an idea to our family that she called Advent Angels. The idea was a riff on Secret Santa, but it was more about actions than things. We’d draw names from a hat and for the month of December, we’d sneak around in the early mornings doing good deeds: making each other’s beds, laying out a special breakfast (a packet of instant oatmeal dumped into the bowl; a frozen waffle put into the toaster oven)and laying gifts of half-gone clementines on door jams. In the evenings we’d light candles by bedsides, and turn down covers, and press play on cassette players with cued-up carols. In a family of six, there were enough of us that there’d be at least a modicum of surprise when the day for revealing your angel came to pass (on Christmas eve, naturally).

It’s a tradition that I’d love to continue in my own family. There’s an opportunity, at this time of year especially, to feel buoyed by humanity, and kindness, and good cheer. And I want in on all that. I always want in on that.

Since we’re still a little small and young for advent angeling, this year, I made an advent calendar for our apartment. We’ll start on December 1—and we’ve got traveling (and eating) to do between now and then—but it’s nice to know that there’s a little something set up for us once we return home, travel weary, no doubt. And in case any of you want in on the magic, too, I thought better to share now than later.

I’ve fashioned the calendar out of business card-sized envelopes and cards, string, and washi tape, and because apparently I’m powerless in the face of miniature clothespins, 24 of those, too.a clutter-free advent calendar | reading my tea leavesI found miniature clothespins and baby envelopes and cards at the Paper Source near our house, but I imagine you might be able to gather similar things close to where you are. The washi tape I snagged from Of a Kind’s very special holiday stationery shop.a clutter-free advent calendar | reading my tea leavesI used my rubber stamp set to mark 24 envelopes with numbers to count down the days, but hand-lettering would work as well.a clutter-free advent calendar | reading my tea leavesWhile traditional advent calendars are a way to mark off the days left before Christmas with treats of candy or gifts, I like the idea of the calendar serving as a reminder to take out the time to do something festive and familial—or just plain indulgent.

Into the envelopes I’ve tucked vouchers for activities and kindnesses timed to fall on days that will make them actually achieveable.a clutter-free advent calendar | reading my tea leaves
For securing the calendar to the wall, I used some waxed string that I had on hand but most any string or ribbon or twine would work. advent calendar | reading my tea leavesBecause nothing says wintry good cheer better than my sassy great great Aunt Ruth Josephine (Faye Josephine’s namesake and my personal heroine) tobogganing, I taped up this favorite family photo alongside a sprig of rosehips.a clutter-free advent calendar | reading my tea leavesA close-up of those tiny clothespins, just in case you needed one.a clutter-free advent calendar | reading my tea leavesAfter taking these shots, I decided to double-secure the strings with the old loop-back trick. You know the one? Where you pull the length of string out by an inch or so, then fold it back over the original piece of tape and secure with a second length tape placed directly over the first making it so that the string can’t slip out? Well, now you do.a clutter-free advent calendar | reading my tea leaves The finished product meets my criteria of not taking up too much room, not making me feel claustrophobic in a small space, and folding back into the small box where we keep the rest of our seasonal doo-dads. With any luck, I’ll be able to reuse the calendar year after year, subbing, likely, the surprises as best fits mood and age and general whereabouts. 

In case you need some inspiration for gifts to put in your advent calendar, I’ll share mine, but the fun part is making it fit the particulars of your family. No doubt some of the dates on our calendar might shift. And some of the kindnesses might pop up utterly unscheduled, but here are 24 ideas I tucked into my clutter-free advent calendar:

1. In-bed coffee service. Because admittedly I get treated to this service far more regularly than someone else in my family, so…here’s an added push to return the favor.

2. Family outing to a tree lighting. Because who doesn’t love exuberant folderol in the great outdoors? We’re going to try to head to Rockefeller Center. It’ll be a total madhouse. #YOLO. 

3. At-home facials. Because everybody loves ’em. Husbands especially. All you need is a washcloth, some cleanser or facial oil, and a willing partner to play at-home spa. 

4. Pot of mulled wine. Because kicking off the weekend with a pot of mulled wine on the stove feels like a perfect mix of cozy and festive. Bonus, we’ll have friends to play along.

5. Official decking of (tiny apartment) hallsBecause even a tiny apartment needs a little extra holiday oompf.

6. Family trip to a favorite breakfast spot. Because sometimes an early morning outing is just what you need to kickstart a Sunday.

7. Specially packed lunch to take to work. Because something a little more fancy than leftover soup won’t go unnoticed.

8.  20-minute foot rub. Because 20 minutes is more generous than two.

9. Pancakes for dinner. Because they’re the perfect vehicle for a light dusting of powered sugar snow.

10. Surprise seasonal cocktail. Because if December’s not made for Irish Cream, I’m not sure what is.

11. Hour-long child-free roam in the neighborhood bookstore. Because it’s nice to remember there’s a room beyond the children’s section.

12. Family skating at local outdoor rink. Because we’re still not sure if we can pull this one off this year, but a trip to watch the skaters would be (almost) as much fun.

13. Family cookie bakingBecause, cookie dough.

14. Weeknight walk to see the displays on Fifth Avenue. Because, animatronic reindeers and people in miniature.

15. Screening of a favorite holiday movie + popcorn. Because James has never seen A Child’s Christmas in Wales.

16. Rooftop hot chocolate dateBecause, romance.

17. Before-work croissant run. Because, fancy.

18. 30-minute massage. Because, see number 8.

19. Group gift-makingBecause a little forced family fun in the name of giving to others lightens everyone’s load.

20. A weekend adventure to see lights in a faraway neighborhood. Because some people get really into light displays. And it’s nice to applaud their efforts.

21. Homemade eggnog making. Because it’s so much better than the stuff in the carton.

22. Family gift-wrapping. Because see #19.

23. Paper snowflake gift tag making. Because, crafty.

24. Family reading of the Night Before Christmas. Because, the moon on the breast of the new fallen snow. 

What about you guys? Any favorite advent or otherwise traditions in your families?
UPDATE: For the curious, here’s the stamp set that I used to make the numbers.

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  • Reply Melanie November 25, 2015 at 7:26 am

    Just lovely! You always make the simple things seem so beautiful! I’ve always wanted to do an advent calendar! Thanks for the inspiration!

    I hope you and your family have a wonderful Thanksgiving! Melanie

  • Reply Karen Agreda November 25, 2015 at 8:24 am

    This is perfection! They’re all so sweet and simple, I definitely bookmarked to try in December (just around the corner!)

  • Reply Mefi November 25, 2015 at 8:42 am

    This is why I come here! What a simple great idea.

  • Reply Christine November 25, 2015 at 9:16 am

    Wait! I actually love this idea. I can be a bit of a Grinch when it comes to the holidays–I just don’t like the idea of buying decorations (that have to be stored for 11 months) or making a mess or generally doing anything very Christmas-y. I keep saying that I’ll do all of that when I have kids! BUT–it would be so fun to have a rooftop hot chocolate date or a night to watch Love Actually or a push to go walk around and look at Christmas lights. I think I just might do this–thank you so much for the idea!

  • Reply Kathleen November 25, 2015 at 9:24 am

    I made an advent calendar very similar to this 5+ years ago. I sewed up 24 small cloth bags in some different types of holiday fabric and I hang them with small clothespins on twine. It’s a great space-saver, easy to pack away and re-use, and one of the things my kids look forward to most about the holidays. I hope you enjoy all the fun activities you have planned!

  • Reply Sophia November 25, 2015 at 9:37 am

    Ok, “the moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,” that just choked me up. There is something about the way you capture everything there is to love about this season that feels so right on, joyful, and needed, especially now. Btw, I’ve never seen A Child’s Christmas in Wales–didn’t realize it was made into a film!–but I have read it, and it, too, is one of those stories that brings me right into the spirit of things. I’m not sure why, but James Joyce’s The Dead is another story that I always think of this time of year, and I know that might sound strange. I love it because it’s melancholy at it’s finest. There is something about the description of snow falling faintly “upon all the living and the dead,” or however it goes, that also captures the feeling of this time of year, when things become quiet, and sombre contemplation can be buoyed by candle glow and warm mugs and pine. Anyway, thanks for your lovely posts. They’re always such a welcome addition to the day!

  • Reply Sarah November 25, 2015 at 10:34 am

    This is so great! I did a similar advent calendar last year, and am doing it again this year. I used a mini muffin tin and put festive paper over each spot to hold the item of the day. It ended with watching Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, which is what my husband and I do every Christmas Eve. Some are events like getting our tree, and some are traditions like we each pick our favorite Christmas song to play for each other. Gets us in the spirit for sure.

  • Reply Mary Kate November 25, 2015 at 10:57 am

    This is amazing. Your husband is so lucky to have such a creative, thoughtful partner! I wish we could be friends,

  • Reply laura November 25, 2015 at 11:37 am

    1. Doe is a genius and 2. How has James not seen a Child’s Christmas in Wales?!

  • Reply Beastmomma November 25, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    I love the child free time in the bookstore. Wonderful ideas

  • Reply Kari November 25, 2015 at 1:37 pm

    When my kids were toddlers, my father built an Advent house for them. And my mother would put a Bible verse and a craft activity in each door. But my kids got too old for the crafts and my mother got too old for the effort. But my kids, even though they were teenagers, didn’t want to stop using the Advent house. So, somehow, a new tradition was born that we continue to this day, even though my kids are in university. My husband hides some of the Christmas tree ornaments around the house and puts rhyming clues in each door for them to search for the ornaments. It’s really fun and funny and we all enjoy it.

  • Reply Rachel November 25, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    Erin, this is such perfect timing. My SIL made us a beautiful felt Advent calendar last year and we’ve been scratching our heads trying to come up with candy-free alternatives.

    May I ask a question? Does the washi tape from Of A Kind (or the others I’ve seen you use in other photos) mark the walls? I bought some off Etsy and it tore out a chunk of paint when I took the pictures down.

  • Reply Rachel November 25, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    Erin, this is such perfect timing. My SIL made us a beautiful felt Advent calendar last year and we’ve been scratching our heads trying to come up with candy-free alternatives.

    Does the washi tape from Of A Kind (or the others I’ve seen you use in other photos) mark the walls? I bought some off Etsy and it tore out a chunk of paint when I took the pictures down.

    • Reply Erin Boyle November 25, 2015 at 1:54 pm

      They’ve got MT washi tape in stock, which is the very best kind! I’ve never ever had a problem with MT!

  • Reply Rita Tocta November 25, 2015 at 1:51 pm

    Oh this wonderful! We never made an Advent Calendar in my family because it’s not common here but I had when I was little two Advent books with animals we bought in London on our trips there and I was always delighted to turn the pages and see bears doing different things! Our Christmas traditions have changed these last years so I think it’s time for an advent calendar! Thanks for the inspiration Erin and Happy Holidays (December is coming!)!

  • Reply Heather November 25, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    This is so pretty and so sweet!

  • Reply Rachael November 25, 2015 at 3:32 pm

    I was playing the audiobook of “The Night Before Christmas” for the girls yesterday and heard that line for the first time! Never noticed it before.

  • Reply Rhian November 25, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    Lovely calendar, and inspiring! A Child’s Christmas in Wales is so good – I think I know every word by heart, despite not having seen it for at least 20 years. Being Welsh, the little boy’s mother’s accent was a bit toe curling, mind… Sadly, the DVD is not available in Europe, and my sister and I were saying just last year how we wish we could show it to our littles (around Faye’s age). Such a shame, I could cry! X

  • Reply JoAnne November 25, 2015 at 4:55 pm

    I also crafted little square covers, made out of craft paper and magnets, for a mini muffin tin advent calendar with our children. I place a little folded up note with the day’s activity behind the magnetic square- some days a special event/activity/craft, family movie night, a special act of kindness for another (delivering home baked treats to neighbors/friends or donating a new toy or two for a local charity). The kids love it!

  • Reply abby November 25, 2015 at 8:30 pm

    Really sweet idea! I’m totally inspired to do this. I have made advent calendars a couple years in a row now, with little drawstring bags that I would fill with small gifts… but I always run out of small, practical gift ideas way before the count of 24. I’ll save those kinds of thing for the stocking this year 🙂

  • Reply thefolia November 26, 2015 at 3:29 am

    What a great idea…I must come up with 24 angle ideas quickly! Cheers to traditions!

  • Reply Grace November 26, 2015 at 6:28 am

    This really touched my heart! What an amazing tradition to have – I’m definitely going to have to make a similar one for me and the Mr when we’re finally living in the same country! Must say Aunt Ruth looks like a bad arse 😉 I can see why she’s your heroine!

    Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Reply Devin November 26, 2015 at 7:27 am

    We do something very similar but we fasten the string across a sort of non functional ladder made out of an old birch tree from my moms yard. We just started this tradition last year and we love it. I will definitely be using some of your ideas this year!

  • Reply Jocelyn November 26, 2015 at 9:51 am

    My boys have a felt advent calendar and I tried filling each day with a fun activity, but the anticipation of each day was too much. I had to scrap the whole idea last year. This year we are going to do all the things on the, list just without opening the little cards. Fingers crossed that will help the mindset in my house this year. I am going to come up with some adult ideas now too. What a great idea to connect with your spouse during what can be a crazy and stressful time of year.

  • Reply Lauren November 28, 2015 at 1:32 pm

    This is absolutely wonderful. I love the minimalistic nature of this and that it focuses on actions not things. Genius. So glad I discovered your site!

  • Reply T November 29, 2015 at 8:15 am

    would love details on your stamp set!

    • Reply Erin Boyle November 30, 2015 at 10:53 am

      Just a little mailing stamp from an office supply shop! Not sure the brand name!

  • Reply Alice Adams November 29, 2015 at 6:26 pm

    Thank you so much for posting this! Especially what you actually wrote in the envelopes. You have the gift of reminding us all what really matters and, to me, this is what simplicity is really about. Wishing you and yours a season of joy xo

    • Reply Erin Boyle November 30, 2015 at 10:59 am

      To you, too!

  • Reply Darcy November 30, 2016 at 5:17 pm

    I see that you purchased your stamp at an office supply store but I have been searching for an hour to no avail- all have a minimum of 4 bands (i.e. 0024)
    Is the brand on the stamp perchance?
    Thank you in advance!

  • Reply Darcy December 1, 2016 at 2:01 pm

    Gracious- good for you to score the deal when you did! May wind up trying to go the route of those metal stamps but with ink. They seem to be the closest in terms of simple, sans serif font and are quite affordable for inexpensive ones. I say that simply by way of posting an option for others who are looking as well. Grateful for the response; super kind of you, Erin. Thank you!

  • Reply michel stong December 20, 2016 at 4:27 pm

    Lovely, I wish I had seen this 20 days ago.

  • Reply zoe persina November 27, 2017 at 4:55 pm

    this is genius. heading to paper source.

  • Reply Sarah December 5, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    How do these caldenars work may I ask? Who does the morning croissant runs and coffee in bed and massages or do both do it? Do you alternate? Haha this is so lovely just tying to imagine how it would work!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE December 6, 2017 at 6:03 am

      They work however you’d like them to! I made this one when we had one baby who was not yet talking, so things have morphed and changed over the years! We trade off, do things together, whatever makes sense on a given day!

  • Reply Christina Craft December 10, 2017 at 9:18 pm

    LOVE LOVE LOVE this idea!!! Just discovered your blog (found you through Pinterest) and so happy!!

  • Reply Sarah December 27, 2017 at 11:03 am

    In a similar way, my sister in law does an advent challenger which is basically like an advent calendar, but rather than open a door to discover a picture/chocolate, you open an envelope to discover a challenge. She’s taking a year out from teaching to focus on empowering teachers to guide their students through mental health issues and make the most of their education, so this year tied them in with the 5 ways to wellbeing, resilience training and #3GoodThings (Pooky Knightsmith). Each one encourages connection with others, giving, noticing the world around you, exercise, learning or reflecting positively on yourself and others. Each challenge tries to encourage a small act to improve wellbeing a little everyday of advent. She posted the challenge each day on her Facebook and Twitter accounts and it was a delight to hear what my nephews were doing.


  • Reply chris December 3, 2018 at 12:55 pm

    What size envelopes and cards are these? It’s hard to tell online.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE December 3, 2018 at 1:11 pm

      They’re business-card sized!


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