Every year about this time the parenting magazines I look at start having articles on cute do-it-yourself Advent calendars. They all seem to follow the same basic steps:
- Collect 24 small envelopes, matchboxes, or empty toilet paper tubes.
- Spend time and money on transforming those items into something very cute.
- Fill each spot up with a small candy or toy.
- Let your child destroy it while counting down the days until Christmas.
I fall in love with the pictures. I’m down with collecting junk to reuse as something useful. But I get to step 3 and I groan, and I’ll tell you why: I have five kids. Starting around Halloween, my house begins to become overrun with candy and little toys (Plastic spider rings! Pumpkin pencils! Turkey erasers! Tiny plastic dreidels! Miniature candy canes!) The last thing I want to do is to bring MORE of this kind of junk into my house on purpose. Another reason the treat per day idea makes me cringe is because the younger kids would not be happy waiting for their day. The older kids would be fine, but for the little kids it would be one day of joy followed by four days of nuclear meltdowns.
So I usually just enjoy the pictures of other people’s Advent calendars and then turn the page.
Then this year I had an idea—what if the countdown didn’t include candy or toys? What if the countdown was something completely different? What if we could anxiously await the arrival of Christmas while also somehow counteracting the greediness and consumerism that always seems to run rampant in December? What if it was an Advent calendar of good deeds?
I decided I needed to make one, so I searched online for a calendar project that appealed to me. There were so many cute ideas out there—paper cones wrapped in fancy paper and strung from ribbon! Fabric birds with beaded, twisted wire hangers! Fabric pockets! Then through a Google image search I found an Advent calendar that was made up of 24 brown paper stars of varying sizes and varieties strung from an evergreen branch that was hung on the wall. It looked like it would be a lot of work for me, and the instructions were in a language I couldn’t understand. I was hooked.
What was it that appealed to me about this one? First of all, ever since I was a kid, I have been fascinated with the idea that one could sew paper, so a project that involved sewing paper immediately caught my eye. I also love the natural look of it. I love using something from our big yard outside and then recycling some brown paper bags from inside. I loved that the stars are all different and imperfect. I can sew but not necessarily a straight line. I have a motto—“slightly effed up is the charm of homemade,” so any project that has what I call the “wonky aesthetic” is all right with me. I decided to go for it.
My first step was to come up with a list of 24 good deeds. I started a list on my laptop and added to it until I had enough to at least get started, figuring I’d think of the rest along the way. Then I ironed some brown paper bags (sewing AND ironing paper? Fantastic!) I cut out about 30 squares and piled them up next to my sewing machine. I felt ready to start!
I cut out my first star, and I checked my list. The first good deed was “call an elderly relative.” I cut some small strips of paper from a vintage Money Receipt pad I have had for years and have found no other use for yet.
I sewed the two sides together most of the way and then folded up the strip of paper and stuck it inside. I also cut some white twine and placed it at the top of the star (for a hanger) before sewing it shut.
I realized I didn’t have any number stamps, but I did have some cute letter stamps, so I wrote “one” on it. This was going to be so easy.
I realized right away that I needed to be careful with which days I put which jobs on. For example, calling an elderly relative would be great to do on a weekend but maybe not so easy to do on a busy school night. So before I went any further, I wrote the days of the week on my list along with the numbers. This also made me realize that it’d be hard to do anything on the Friday night we’d be having our annual holiday party, so I decided to make that day’s deed “help set up for the party” which they would have had to do anyway. That one’s a bit of a cheat for me, but it helped me make it to 24.
I should have figured that when I began patting myself on the back for these brilliant realizations I would mess up something else, and I did. I had erased the first four things off my electronic list before realizing that I wanted to keep track of them all in case I wanted to use them again next year.
There were only four stars done, but, of course, I couldn’t remember what I wrote in them, so I had to slit the backs open and then tape them shut again. No more back patting until the job was done!
Did I listen to my own advice?
No! Because after writing those words, I again patted myself on the back and again immediately realized I had a problem. Twice. First, I noticed I was really getting the hang of using the tiny stamps I have, and then I stamped a letter upside down. Then as I admired the stitch I had switched my sewing machine to I ran out of thread on my bobbin. I rethread it, which naturally used up the rest of the thread on my spool, so then I had to find another one in my stash that would fit on my machine.
Absolutely no more back patting.
At this point, the kids realized that I’m working on something interesting. Maybe it’s all the paper stars I have laid out on the couch (to keep an eye on the size of the twine hangers). “What is that? It doesn’t look like a calendar. Of what?? Good deeds! Cool!! That means Santa will bring us MORE PRESENTS!”
Mommy working hard at trying to finish an intriguing project really piques the youngest kids’ interests. My five-year-old decides he wants to push the pedal for the sewing machine. His foot is at the ready, and I tell him to wait for me to put the thread back in the needle. As I am threading it, Speedy puts the pedal to the metal. And is promptly kicked out of the family room.
Next up is the three-year-old. She clearly doesn’t share my vision of these as hanging ornamental stars and insists they are necklaces. She won’t leave me alone until I make her one to wear. After trying to tell her “no” and “wait five minutes,” I buckle and make her one. She skips away happily, and I find it on the floor exactly one minute later. Apparently, though, that was enough to get her to leave me alone so I could finish sewing.
The last step was finding an evergreen branch and stringing it up on my mantle. Once it was secure, I laid out the stars on the floor in numerical order. I placed twelve in the middle to give myself a reference point. Most of the stars were attached by sending the star through the loop of the hanger and then pulling tight, but some were able to hang on little branches.
And then I stood up and fell in love. This! This lovely, rustic, charming, wonky, natural Advent Calendar made with and designed for spreading love was the countdown to Christmas I had been wishing for.
And soon I will allow my children to destroy it.