a clutter-free advent calendar, updated.

November 29, 2018

When I first posted about our plans for a clutter-free advent calendar, Faye was a wee thing of 19-months. That original list of holiday activities has all the hallmarks of a family with one small child and lots of weeknight time on their hands. Now, with two little guys growing increasingly excited for December to get here, I’ve made a few changes to this year’s calendar.  

In the spirit of both economies of time and resources, I’ve focused this year’s calendar on family-friendly advent activities. To make sure we’re enjoying the season without feeling burdened by it, I’ve included a lot of the festive holiday traditions that we’d be doing regardless—drawing out the decorating, and the excitement, and the general merry-making one day at a time until Christmas. This way, the calendar isn’t a way for us to heap on a whole lot more to the holiday season, as much as it’s about remembering to enjoy it while it’s here—while nights are long and dark and cold, a bit of good cheer in anticipation of more light ahead.

For those who have asked about the timing of this clutter-free advent calendar over the years, the answer is that we’re very flexible. If it’s cold one night and a neighborhood walk to spot Christmas trees doesn’t sound fun, we’ll swap it for something else. If a tree lighting gets postponed, well, ditto. Generally, we reserve the more labor intensive activities for a weekend when everyone’s rested and ready. And, if it turns out that we just don’t have the steam to start an after school craft project or trek out to deliver cookies (let alone bake them), there’s the perennially convenient and cheery option of a family Christmas singalong, off-key renditions of Jingle Bells more than welcomed. (Also: Yes! I’ve often added the activities to the envelopes one by one on the night before, or the morning of, to help weather vagaries of moods and weather or otherwise.)

Here’s what our simple advent calendar activities are shaping up to be this year, in no particular order:

+ Pick out a Christmas tree

+ Make cinnamon stars

+ Dry orange ornaments.

+ Decorate the tree!

+ Write a letter to Santa.

+ Cut paper snowflakes.

+ Roll candles.

+ Eat a snowflake-shaped pasta dinner.

+ Choose gifts to send to kids with incarcerated parents or donate to a local toy drive.

+ Hang stockings

+ Bring food stuffs to a local food bank.

+ Bake christmas cookies.

+ Deliver christmas cookies!

+ Go caroling in the apartment building (or neighborhood!).

+ Drink hot chocolate with marshmallows after school.

+ Head out for an after-dinner pajama walk to scout neighborhood trees.

+ Light advent candles each Sunday (x4!).

+ Watch a favorite movie (while a little brother naps!).

+ Make festive pancakes (inspired by the above!).

+ Mail christmas cards.

+ Make ice ornaments.

+ Feed the birds.

To the folks who ask if my kids miss the little trinkets and thingamabobs or chocolate they might otherwise be getting in an advent calendar, the answer is I don’t think so (and treats abound in any case)! But also know that in the past week alone, Faye has asked me for Hanukkah gelt, sparkly red plastic ornaments, a blowup Santa lawn decoration (no matter the lack of lawn), a plastic light up statue of Mary and Joseph, a Christmas stocking festooned with faux red velvet and glitter paint, and sundry holiday treats, mostly in the form of very large candy canes conveniently located near checkout at the grocery store. I don’t make sport of denying my children the things they desire, but no parent can say yes to everything. As I overheard Faye tell a small friend last week, “even nice parents say no sometimes.”

Past ideas:

A very bookish Christmas countdown.

A very peaceful Christmas countdown.

For the curious:

This year I decided to hang our calendar in a straight line from a bit of velvet ribbon. It’s tacked onto the door with a very tiny metal tack, which will save me the sanity of reapplying washi tape all season. (Last year, strung it from our headboard!)

You Might Also Like


  • Reply Jeannine November 29, 2018 at 4:22 pm

    Lovely! Are those little envelopes with the activities inside? And not to make this all about sources, but I would love to know what you use as a “label maker”.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE November 29, 2018 at 5:23 pm

      Head to the original post for all of those details! (Will update this post when I’m at a computer!)

  • Reply Virginia November 29, 2018 at 4:28 pm

    This is one of my absolute favorite holiday traditions thanks to you! Going on year #3!

  • Reply DE November 29, 2018 at 4:33 pm

    Thanks so much for this timely post! I’ve been poking around the Internet the last couple days for candy-and toy-free ideas, and these are just perfect!
    (ps. love your blog!)

  • Reply Gillian November 29, 2018 at 6:29 pm

    This is such a great idea! We’ve done a chocolate advent calendar in the past but I’ve never loved the idea of it. This seems much more meaningful and has so many opportunities for family quality time! Thanks!

  • Reply Eleanor November 29, 2018 at 7:25 pm

    I giggled at the blow up lawn santa since you seem to be the exact opposite of a blow up santa family!

  • Reply Rachael November 29, 2018 at 8:14 pm

    I love that you do this. I don’t think I could pull off an activity idea and they would begin to worry me, but I love thinking about it.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE November 29, 2018 at 9:45 pm

      It’s all about making it low-stakes and stuff you were gonna do anyway!

  • Reply Sasha L November 30, 2018 at 11:22 am

    I love the long list of things Faye has asked for, and you have denied, lol. Children just adore the pretty and the sparkly and the sweet and the new and the magical. No wonder adults go a little overboard, we are just children at heart and we adore it all too. What a gift to teach her to love it all and enjoy the wonder, without needing to have every single thing.

    We always did a similar Advent, just adding in the things we all loved to do, like sledding and leaving shoes out for St Nick’s day, plus a few surprises, like going out for donuts. So much more fun than the same treat of a chocolate each day. My girls’ favorite, year in and year out, was the tree for the animals. We would read Eve Bunting’s The Night Tree and a story about St Francis helping the animals, and then make a magical trek into the woods at night to decorate a tree, sit under for a bit looking at the stars and wonder what animals would come celebrate after we left. One year we rented a Forest service cabin in the mountains, had to ski in and out. We went to Christmas Eve church where the children were a living Nativity, then skied back to our cabin under the stars, lit candles, cozied into our sleeping bags and wondered if Santa would know where to find us. One of my very favorite memories.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE November 30, 2018 at 11:58 am

      PURE. MAGIC.

  • Reply Alex November 30, 2018 at 12:23 pm

    I love Advent traditions and we’re trying to solidify ours, but have found it difficult (our kiddos are 6, 3, & 6 months). I truly appreciate these suggestions of making things we like to do anyway more of a marked part of the season by adding intentionality. Also I’ve made Christmas pancakes using walnuts for reindeer antlers that were a big hit.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE November 30, 2018 at 12:35 pm

      I love that!

  • Reply marie November 30, 2018 at 5:33 pm

    Last year I added a rime to our activity advent calendar. Mostly to give us a break from cookie making and tree hunting walks. But it was one of her favourits and she went back to that little note again and again – she recited the rime and pretended to read it.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE November 30, 2018 at 7:18 pm

      Ha! Yes! So good to let it evolve naturally—and take breaks!

  • Reply cassie November 30, 2018 at 9:29 pm

    i’ve always remembered your original advent calendar post and now that my two boys are 3 and 1, i actually just navigated back to that original post a couple of days ago for inspiration! thanks for these awesome new ideas – our kiddos are totally on the same wavelength – they’re going to love this! 🙂

  • Reply Mirva December 1, 2018 at 3:00 am

    I love this Advent calendar of yours! I think I might incorporate some of your activity ideas in my calendar this year.

    Ours usually contains tiny gifts but of the thrifted sort — stuff we find at fleas during the year, and store away to be given during advent. Sometimes it also includes treats like a Christmas cookie baked the day before. One of the things my 9-year-Old still loves about the calendar is treasure hunts and riddles. I hide the surprise somewhere in the house and then she has to find it following different clues I’ve written. This year she has specifically asked for riddles and even math problems to solve to get her little treat — be it a cookie or a tree hunt in the woods. I’m sure she would also love decorating a tree in the woods for animals or doing some charity work as an Advent calendar activity. Thank you so much for sharing your brilliant ideas!

  • Reply Huma December 1, 2018 at 10:07 am

    Mostly, I just want to know what that cookie recipe is!

    But as ever – I love the simplicity of this. We do PJ walks (only we call them Midnight Walks, because 7.30 feels like midnight when you are 5, 3 and 1) around our neighbourhood at this time of year too and it is such a treat – I never see them get into their Pjs quite so quick.

  • Reply Felicia December 2, 2018 at 4:41 pm

    This is a very cute & good idea! I way have to copy it (:

  • Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    Comments are moderated.