I Got a Reusable Advent Calendar, and Here's Why I'll Never Buy a Preloaded One Ever Again

POPSUGAR Photography | Kate Schweitzer
POPSUGAR Photography | Kate Schweitzer
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Every year around this time, the internet is aflurry with cute Advent calendars you can buy for the holiday season. There are hundreds of options — one for every kid's interest, whether they are a Harry Potter fan or Frozen-obsessed, whether they love cozy socks or adding to their Lego collection. But, although I loved the concept of counting down to Christmas and having a festive daily ritual during the magical month of December, I didn't love what I was seeing.

Why I Don't Buy Annual Advent Calendars

I actively try to ensure the holidays aren't just about presents my kids get, and let me tell you: the promise of a daily gift throws a wrench in that plan quickly. When my firstborn was a toddler, a British friend gave us a Cadbury Chocolate Advent calendar, and I'm not exaggerating that by Day 2, mornings were a race to pull out, fight over, and whine about that day's treat. By Day 14 or so, all the joy was gone. And by Christmas morning? I was thrilled to be done with this grubby grind of a routine entirely.

I try to ensure the holidays aren't just about presents my kids get, and let me tell you: the promise of a daily gift throws a wrench in that plan.

Aside from that, in my ongoing efforts to be less wasteful around the holidays, these store-bought calendars didn't feel exactly green. No matter which one you consider, they all have some element of individually packaged tchotchkes or candies within tiny cardboard flaps within oversize disposable boxes. The idea that I'd be buying — and then trashing — some version of that every year just didn't sit well.

That's when I discovered a solution.

Why I Love My Reusable Advent Calendar

In addition to all the preloaded one-off Advent calendars available online, there were a few dozen reusable Advent calendar "shells" available. Made of wood or fabrics like wool or fleece, these high-quality options double up as beautiful holiday decor. And although they include the requisite 25 pockets, they come empty. The idea is that you'd fill it, season after season, with your own curated goodies.

A few years ago, I bought one — mine is the "Holiday Helper" Advent calendar from the now-defunct Land of Nod — and went one step further by stuffing each day not with a tangible object but an experience.

POPSUGAR Photography | Kate Schweitzer

How I Use My Advent Calendar — No Toys Necessary

On slips of red and green paper, I wrote up holiday activities and traditions and, after consulting my family's calendar, assigned them each a date in which they could be done. I even broke them down into general categories. For instance . . .

I included a few days with some of the citywide events we like to participate in and other items already on our schedule:

  • visit the German Christmas outdoor market downtown
  • go to the school holiday pageant
  • take a ride on the city's holiday train
  • drive to see the neighborhood Christmas lights
  • visit the zoo's annual holiday display

Like many time-crunched parents out there, I often have big plans for fun at-home seasonal activities but never see them through. By assigning certain craft or baking projects to days in the Advent calendar (and thus my actual calendar as well), I force myself to have the supplies ready and the time set aside:

  • make homemade hot chocolate
  • decorate Christmas cookies with friends
  • make handprint ornaments
  • bake Rice Krispies wreaths
  • write Christmas cards to grandparents

To carry out my goal of making the holidays more about giving than receiving, I also set aside a few days for more selfless kid-friendly endeavors (for those days involving donations, I'll have the kids go through their belongings or shop at a store with me and choose things to give away):

  • donate toys, clothes, and books to local charity
  • visit residents at nursing home
  • bring dog treats to local animal shelter
  • donate canned goods to local charity

And because I can't be "on" all month long, I threw in some simpler options that were relatively easy to pull off with zero prep:

  • watch a Christmas movie
  • pick out your favorite ornament on the Christmas tree
  • read a Christmas book at bedtime
  • send a letter to Santa Claus
  • share what we are thankful for this year
  • have a Christmas music dance party
  • sing a Christmas carol
  • wear matching Christmas pajamas

With a few exceptions — we'll switch up the ornament craft projects, for instance — my list of 25 activities hasn't changed much over the past few years. And it probably will stay the same for the next few years while my kids are still little. As they get older and mature, the activities will, too. I imagine I'll push for more days of volunteering in the community and they'll push for fewer Mariah Carey dance parties. We'll figure it out as we go, but it's nice knowing that I've got a built-in system for making every day of December special.

If this inspires you to go the reusable route, here's one more added benefit. Even the priciest among them are often not more expensive than some of the one-off ones out there. Plus, it's a one-time purchase versus something you'll have to sink money into every year. Ready to give it a try? Here's a few I recommend.