November 25, 2017

25 Ways to Countdown to Christmas With Your Kids

By Lowry Manders

Christmas, in many ways, is a reminder of how LIFE should be. While it’s here, practice making magical, meaningful moments every day because children do grow up so fast, just like we did.  Don’t you remember the magic and wonder? I do. I remember some of the presents (like the remote-control blimp that got caught by a wind and blown to Mexico on its maiden voyage. Or the Cabbage Patch Kid that my parents had my uncle in Mississippi stand in line for because they were all sold out in Texas). Yet most of my childhood Christmas memories are of being with my family and doing special things together. One of the rituals our family started last year is “Counting to Christmas,” starting on December 1st.


This ritual was inspired in part by one of our favorite books, Counting to Christmas by Nancy Tafuri (read about it and 14 other faves in my post, 15 Great Christmas Books for Kids). It was also inspired by the tradition of our former apartment neighbors, a dear German family. They hang 25 small wrapped gifts from a pulley in the living room for each child, and they lower it every day to receive a small gift, helping to cut-down on the BIG expectations for the 25th day.  We mix it up. Some days it’s a family outing, sometimes just a dollar store gadget, sometimes a clue to indicate a special activity. My kids each have a little Christmas tin box to open every day with the gift or clue inside, and on the box I tape the number to help build the anticipation. (Or you could put the clue in the number pocket of the Advent calendar.) Each morning (or evening), as I present it to them, we sing “We Three Kings…bearing gifts…” Do what works for you,  but be intentional about including time together, time doing things for others, and time enjoying simple pleasures,  like reading a new Christmas book or gazing at the tree together. Here are some ideas to get your juices flowing…


1. Start them off with an Advent Calendar. (I bought cheap felt ones in the Dollar bin at Target so each can have one on their door.) We also have the beautiful one that my mom made for our family when I was little. Each day, you pull a wooden figure out of a pocket to add to the nativity scene. We used to gather each night in our PJ’s, Mom would accompany us on her guitar as we sang a carol, lit the advent wreath, and add a sheep or tree. As we got closer to Christmas, the figures got more exciting  – the star, Mary, Joseph, the manger, and finally, the baby Jesus!


2.  Christmas Walk with Cocoa and Cookies! We will go to “The Village” Country Club for this, but you could do it in your own neighborhood, or any outdoor park, town square, or shopping center. This year, I plan to pack up a thermos of cocoa, maybe grab a few cookies for us to share by the big tree!

Enjoying the Parade, 2010

3. Attend a Christmas community event. We will attend the Neiman Marcus Christmas Parade in Downtown Dallas, Dec. 3rd. Lots of fun for FREE! A great way to bring in the joy and magic of the season with your little ones.

Cozy for our carriage ride

4. We started a tradition last year of going on a family carriage ride to see some of the holiday lights.


5. Mailing the Family Christmas Cards! (Clue: a book of Christmas stamps and stickers.) Let the kids be a part of the process, and help with this family “tradition:” putting the stamps on, decorating envelopes with stickers, licking and closing them, sticking them in the mail box at the post office. Give them a candy cane treat for their help, and to get rid of the gluey taste! 


6. Homeless Kits – I first did this years ago when I was a nanny for a little girl. We would often see a homeless person with a sign asking for money at street corners, especially around the holidays. She began to ask about them, and I knew I should set the right example. Perhaps you don’t feel comfortable giving them money, but it is still an opportunity to teach your family values of sharing and caring, compassion and empathy. We put together kits in large ziploc bags with a water bottle, granola bar, crayon drawing, packet of Kleenex, and info on “The Stewpot.” You could simply print this page to include: Stewpot info, or write the phone number and address of your local homeless agency on the back of your child’s drawing. With a few of these packets in the car, we no longer had to sit and feel uncomfortable at the red light. We could do the right thing. Invite some friends over and make a fun assembly line, in the spirit of giving.

MJ the little elf, 2008


7. Decorate the TREE! Or go cut down the tree, or go buy a new fake tree! (Clue: a “tree” ring pop) We like to turn on some Christmas music, or let Daddy play a few carols on the piano while we hang the ornaments, talking about each one – baby’s first Christmas ornaments, some trains that Daddy got as a boy, some that Mommy made as a girl at the church’s Advent festival, some special gifts from special people  – the silver angel from my late Gammy that she gave me the Christmas right before she passed, some souvenirs from special places – the wooden Austrian jumping jack from our European honeymoon.


8. Make a Craft, Share a Craft - My son loves to craft ALL the time, but especially at Christmas. There are tons of easy, great ideas out there, and I often pick up a quick “kit” at Michael’s for an activity. This year, I’ll get enough so that the kids can share with a friend. Christmas craft ideas


9. Pizza Party for parent at work. Dustin had this idea because the staff and nurses keep asking to see the kids, and we thought we could make it a Christmas present for all of them by providing dinner. The kids will have fun dressing up in Christmas gear, and we’ll do a little caroling while we’re there, too!  Is there someone in your family for whom the kids could spread “office” cheer in lieu of gifts?


10. Visiting Santa -When we visit Santa, we don’t wait in line. We don’t pay a penny.  We don’t dress up. It is very low pressure. I just take a picture with my own camera, and we deliver a card to Santa to wish him a Merry Christmas. 


11. Family Christmas Caroling to members of our church in nursing homes and homebound. This is something I grew up doing with my parents who were in the choir,  and it I have such fond memories of it. 

Ellie at work w/ xmas play stations, 2010

12. Christmas “Play” Stations. We have a great IKEA table for this, but we use to just have one book case for our “toy shelf”
in our apartment, so the “toys” rotated (a lot of the best ones are not really toys). The kids’ favorites have included: red and gold Christmas beads (put on a tray with tweezers or make paths on the floor), xmas finger puppets in a play-house for pretend play, little dollar store plastic xmas tic-tac-toe board (good for fine motor), xmas wind-up toys on a tray (also good for those same little pincer grasp muscles), a nativity scene. This year I’ll include a writing station with cheap xmas cards, pens, and crayons. Also, a tiny tree with little bows and mini-ornaments for decorating and re-decorating (more fine motor).

MJ puts a dino and Santa in a helicopter at Jesus’ birth! (2009)


13. Donate a Toy with your Child! Remind them that some people don’t have enough money to buy toys, and that’s why we share. 


14. Have  a ballerina in your family? Watch “The Nutcracker” on TV. It airs live from Lincoln Center on Dec.14th on PBS. 

Mike Smith, Mary Hollis Inboden, Briana DiGiulio, Joey Steakley, and Tyler Ravelson


15. Watch an old home-movie together, Christmas-themed, of course!  Do you have any from when you were a kid? Or from when your kids were babies? They love this stuff! (More now than they will at 14.) Snuggle up on the couch with some egg-nog and popcorn. It’s a great way to pass on family stories and history, building a stronger foundation and sense of belonging for them as they grow.

OR  Watch a favorite Christmas movie together. Dustin’s favorite is “The Christmas Story”, though we are not yet old enough for that one. Mine is “The Snowman” by Raymond Briggs, no dialogue, just a lovely story set to beautiful music played by the London Symphony. 


16. Dec.16th“Mommy Manders” Family Outreach Project, Details TBA – I will offer a Christmas “Family Music Class” at a nursing home for anyone who wants to attend. We will sing some carols, dance together, play some instruments, and spread some joy.  (Clue: new Christmas socks to wear for the occasion! Not sure why, but my kids love these and have been wearing them all year!)

From my outreach event, 2008


17. Take a NO-shopping trip to the mall. (But don’t go on the weekend!) We call them “Penny Walks.” I load the kids up with loose change, and our mission is to put a few coins in every red Salvation Army bucket we find, listening for the ringing bells along the way, and sometimes getting a peppermint in return.  We also try to coordinate listening to a couple of live music performances while we’re there. It’s a great way to teach kids that music doesn’t just come out of ear buds or a box, but live “musicians”. (Clue: coins!)


18. Make Christmas Cookies Together – for teachers, for friends and neighbors, for the mailman and babysitter, for yourselves! (Clue: Christmas shaped cookie cutters, of course!)

19. Road Trip! Go to see the grandparents (Clue: Rudolph and Frosty movies, and new chapter book for reading aloud on the long car ride!)


20. Gingerbread Houses – You can actually buy a kit at Michael’s for this, but simple graham crackers, icing, and candy are
all you need. This would be a fun treat after dinner one night – make one to eat and one for display. 2 years ago, we did it with friends. Last year, my kids actually enjoyed doing this with our babysitter while we were out. (It’s good to have something fun for the kids to do while you go have your fun, too!)


21. Make an “Advent Chain” out of red and green strips of paper. (Clue: the paper, and little staplers.) Invite some friends for more help and fun! When I was a little girl, the kids at our church started this tradition. We worked hard and fast together (and staplers) to make the chain longer every year, and stretched it all around the church! I was thinking that a nice twist would be to write down someone’s name that you make a Christmas wish for or say a little prayer for as you go. 


22. Wrap Presents together! Turn some great holiday music on, and get out the tape. Let them use a variety of colorful tapes (including blue), and decorative papers or newspaper. I definitely encourage them to wrap their own presents to each other, and to Daddy, etc. (Clue: a roll of paper, of course!)


23. Take the Dart train to “Tuba Christmas” at Thanksgiving Square in Downtown Dallas, 1627 Pacific Avenue at Ervay and Bryan. It’s at noon, so lots of folks bring picnics and lawn chairs. Quite a sight and sound, and fun family sing-along.

MJ loves tubas! 2008
Last year at Tuba Xmas, just before it got rained out!
GareBear warms E’s hands on the train

24. Christmas Eve Brunch! Host a special brunch with your favorite Christmas foods.



Exhausted just from reading this? Just pick a few favorites! Wanna know how it’s really going for my family? Read my follow-up post, \”Real Family, Real Life\”


Lowry Manders is a Dallas mom of 2 young children, a Kindermusik teacher, child development expert, creator and speaker for Parent with Purpose, seminars, and writer/ blogger on Mommy Manders.


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  1. Julie what a great article and I’ll do some of these things! Thanks!

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