An Intentional Holiday | by Sarah Ann Noel

I don’t remember why I started doing an activity Advent calendar for my daughters. Maybe it was that early years “chasing motherhood perfection” syndrome and I was subconsciously triggered by Pinterest. Maybe it was my rigorous efforts to maintain structure in our home spilling into even holiday cheer. Maybe it was a desperation to not miss anything in these few and precious years I have with little ones in my charge.

Whatever the reason, the tradition began and I’ve been carrying it on since my oldest was only two or three—about six years now. Beginning December 1, every day until Christmas, my two girls take turns dipping their fingers into the tiny, shiny compartments of our Scandinavian-inspired Advent calendar and unroll each day’s activity. When they were little, they were easy tasks: “Color a picture of Santa Claus!” Or “Hang an ornament on the Christmas tree!” As my kids grew, so did the activities grow into something more, both in execution and also in meaning.

Once, a well-meaning friend mentioned to me that my activity Advent calendar might create an unnecessary sense of overwhelm in an already crazy season of hustle and bustle. From the outside, looking in, I see her point. To commit to 25 activities, one a day, might seem like nothing more than packing the calendar during a period where free days are hard to come by.

Ironically, I’ve always felt our Advent calendar does the exact opposite, however. 

With the maturing of my children and our Christmastime activities has come a deeper sense of meaning and intention. No longer are my goals only celebration or tradition, although those are a couple of nice perks from the practice; but rather, I want to answer the question of why behind each and every item we choose. Sometimes, it’s a time to honor and serve the other or someone less fortunate. Sometimes, it’s to reinforce our sense of family and home. Sometimes, it’s hanging on to a childlike spirit of joy and wonder that’s easier for all of us—adults included—to find in the magic of the holidays. 

And when it comes to the actual breakdown of time, believe it or not, I think our holidays are less busy. Can we meet you for an unplanned excursion squeezed between school dismissal and homework time that will inevitably plunge us into the materialistic, bombarding insanity that is commercial Christmas? Nope! Sorry! We can’t! We have an Advent activity planned…and it’s not your business if it’s simply heading home to spin my grandmother’s old Christmas vinyl while we cut out paper snowflakes and drink hot cocoa. 

When you return to the why, the central questions behind all these things we feel we must do during the holidays, you uncover control, also. It’s victory over the bustle because it’s a decision to be intentional. This is possible, wherever you are, whatever your circumstances, with just a small amount of creativity and planning. Most years, we decorate pinecones in glitter as Christmas tree ornaments. When we lived in Bedstuy, with few pinecones at our disposal, we instead whipped up a batch of homemade play dough and used cookie cutters to make Christmas shapes. A hole at the top and a little twine, and we still had our tradition of simple, homemade holiday decór. The Christmas after we started our business, funds were so scarce, I was worried about fulfilling Christmas Day wishes, let alone purchasing tickets to a special holiday performance. Then I discovered, our local library was hosting a handbell ensemble, and we dressed up even though no one else did, and thoroughly enjoyed an hour of singing along. My girls even got to try out the bells!

There are things that my children have come to love and expect about their Advent calendar. We always bake cookies. We always clean out toy boxes with the intention of gifting something meaningful. We always reserve an evening to drive around our town looking at Christmas lights. What is amazing to me is that it is these—the most basic, frugal traditions—that they look forward to most. From there, we find ways to grow into the holidays as our family grows. This year, they’re old enough to take acts of service beyond simply writing a thank you letter or sharing their toys. We’ll be heading downtown with a friend who provides free haircuts for the homeless, handing out sandwiches and cookies, and simply making friends.

I think what I write into the Advent calendar are the values that I hope live in our family year-round—a sense of appreciation; a sense of family; a sense of love and self-sacrifice. What the Advent calendar accomplishes is writing that into our holiday code, countercultural action when the world says its okay to abandon some values and feign others otherwise neglected.

This intentionality will look different in every household, in each family, from different backgrounds, faiths, and traditions; but if you’re looking for a little inspiration, one year, I listed each of our activities, and another, I recorded each day in my Instagram stories.

Regardless of the holiday you celebrate or how you go about it, let’s forgo the holiday cheer that actually makes us blue and instead create an atmosphere of holiday intention, full of awareness and care for our ourselves and for others.

(Photo by LaTonya for LaTonya Yvette)

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