MamaBlogger365 – Counting to Christmas: 25 Ways to Count Down with your Kids! by Lowry Manders

Christmas-time is about being together. It’s about simple joys. And for children, it’s about PRESENTS! (Oops, did I say “presents”? I meant MAGIC! As parents, it’s our job to make in NOT just about presents.)

Really, Christmas, in many ways, is a reminder of how LIFE should be, not just a 25-day period. But, while it’s here, you might as well practice making magical, meaningful moments every day because… they 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 it’s maiden voyage, and the Cabbage Patch kid that my parents had my uncle in Mississippi stand in line for because they were all sold out in Texas), but most of my 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 cheep 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. We lived in these apartments for 8 years, and always enjoyed the Christmas lights. I have fond memories of walking with baby MJ, toddler MJ, and baby Ellie out there. And last year we had fun meeting Daddy there after work one day to walk around, run around, and explore. This year, I plan to pack up a thermos of cocoa, maybe grab a few cookies for us to share by the big tree!

3. We will attend the Neiman Marcus Christmas Parade in Downtown Dallas, Dec. 3rd. Here’s a BIG tip: If you want to beat the crowds, park for free, and get a good view of the parade, my home church, FPC Dallas (408 Park Avenue) opens the doors for hospitality: serving hot chocolate, offering crafts for children, a brass ensemble playing Christmas music, clean restrooms and water fountains for guests. You have to get into the garage by 8:30 before the street is closed. The parade comes by around 10:20-11:20. Maybe we’ll see you there! Lots of fun for FREE! A great way to bring in the joy and magic of the season with your little ones.

4. We started a tradition last year of going on a family carriage ride to see some of the holiday lights in Highland Park. It is our Christmas gift to my parents, and gives us good quality time snuggled up on a SLOW ride together. Nothing to do but chat, sing carols, and enjoy the view. We do it through 3 Jays Carriage Rides in HP Village (though you really have to book in advance). Here is another option: Dec 10-11, Dallas Heritage Village (Clue: rolled up picture of a horse-drawn carriage, printed off Internet)

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 caen treat for them help, and to get rid of the gluey taste! (There’s a post office right across from Krispy Kreme on Greenville – there might be a little extra glaze and sprinkles on our cards. In all honesty, I may just take that off my to-do list and “post” my card for all to see!)

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 right 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.

7. Decorate the TREE! Or go cut down the tree, or go buy a new fake tree! (Clue: a “tree” ring pop) Dustin is allergic to real trees, but last year we went as a family to “ring up” our favorite artificial one. Not quite as quaint as going to the tree farm, but Lowes was quite festive. 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 make on for sharing with a friend of teacher, perhaps an elderly neighbor.

9. Pizza Party for Daddy at the hospital. 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! Maybe we can sneak Daddy away with us for a few minutes to see the train display at Children’s Medical Center which will be decorated for the holidays. Maybe MJ will get to “scrub in” on a C-section! (clue: a scrub hat and pretend pizza from our play-food set) 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! (We have always gone to visit our friend “Pop” who plays Santa at Nordstrom at the Galleria, but his hours have been cut way back this year. Still, we’ll manage to see him.) This is the first year I’ve mentioned to Michael James that he gets to ask Santa for something (some one thing) on his card, and I will help him write it himself this year. Word on the street is that the card will say “I would like a science kit, please.” Look out Einstein, and my kitchen! (Clue: the card to deliver with a Christmas pen or pencil.) If you do go to the Galleria over the holidays, check out the Illumination Celebration.

11. Family Christmas Caroling to members of our church in nursing homes and home-bound. This is something I grew up doing with my parents who were in the choir, and it I have such fond memories of it. Jake and I gained confidence and social skills, empathy and a level of comfort with the elderly as we greeted people and sang our hearts out. (Clue: jingle bells.)

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. (MJ is loving writing this year!) Also, a tiny tree with little bows and mini-ornaments for decorating and re-decorating (more fine motor).

13. Donate a Toy with your Child! Dec. 13th, “Wee Volunteer” Outreach Event at the Purple Cow benefiting “Toys for Tots”, 5-8. Remind them that some people don’t have enough money to buy toys, and that’s why we share. More info at Wee Volunteer

14. Have a ballerina in your family? Watch “The Nutcracker” on TV. It airs live from Lincoln Center on Dec.14th on PBS. More info at PBS. MJ saw a friend dance live in it last year, but it’s not something that needs to be an annual tradition for us. It’s cheaper and a lot more comfortable to watch from home where the kids can dance along in their tutus and slippers, and maybe fall asleep on the couch. Now, if you are in Chicago or Boston, you absolutely MUST see a totally different version of the “Nutcracker” LIVE on stage. It’s one brilliant re-telling of the original story by my brother, the playwright Jake Minton. Opening to rave reviews 4 years ago, it has become a staple holiday tradition in the “Windy City”, and premiered in Boston this month. Great for kids about 10 and up. See it in Chicago, See it in Boston (Clue: a toy “nutcracker”, the book, or just a nut ;) )

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. Watch my favorite scene, MJ’s favorite song (which I dream of him singing just like a little English choir-boy someday) – you can ask the fabulous pianist at North Park to play it for you…I stopped short of showing the last scene (melting) when MJ was young, though Ellie’s tougher and handles it fine. (Last year’s clue: the book, this year: hot cocoa packet w/ marshmallows)

16. Friday, 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!)

17. Take a NO-shopping trip to the mall. (But don’t go on the weekend!) We call them “Penny Walks” at North Park. 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. (MJ actually had his pic in the Dallas Morning News 2 years ago, reaching up to drop a coin in the red bucket!) We also try to coordinate listening to a couple of live music performances while we’re there. Check out the Sights and Sounds of the Season schedule. 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. Making 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 in Miami, OK (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. Two 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.

Display some of it in your own house, along your hall, on your tree, and take some of it to a neighborhood nursing home or fire station for them to display. In my mom’s family, we have a very special keepsake paper chain, displayed each year on the tree at Heimat (German for “Home Place”), my late grandparents’ (and great-grandparents’) home, now belonging to my uncle. It is a delicate, faded, colorful little chain that was made by little Bobby over 65 years ago. (Bobby died at age 7 in an accident, before my mom was born.)

22. Wrapping 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.

24. Christmas Eve Brunch! This was a precious family tradition that my parents hosted for me and my brother growing up, from age 5 and 7 to age 25 and 27 for our kid-friends from church. The activities didn’t vary that much as we grew from pre-school to grad-school (“Steven Says”, Christmas Pictionary, Guesstures), and we always had the same food, and we always helped to make it: pigs in a blanket, fruit salad, Mom’s yummy egg casserole, and blueberry muffins. We often went to feed the ducks at White Rock Lake and run around a bit. This year we’ll keep it small. Invite a few family friends, focus on the kids, play a couple of games, and take PB/ bird-seed pinecone treats and cranberry-popcorn strings to decorate a tree for the animals there as a gift.

25. MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!

Need More Event Ideas for Dallas?

* I thought of taking the kids to a Live Nativity Options in DFW area (Then decided I’ll keep it simple – just pretend we’re the “wise people” bearing gifts of chili, cornbread, and cheese for the neighbors who have a newborn son, and we can pretend their black lab is the donkey!)
* Another option at Dallas Heritage Village that looks like fun, Dec. 18th, \”Family Past-times\” (scenes from books, inc. our favorite, Little House series. MJ and I are re-reading Little House on the Prarie right now – so good!)
* Here’s another Santa option: Chocolate Secrets, Dec. 16-18 visit with Santa
* See the whole list! December Events, Dallas Child

Bio: Says Lowry Manders, “I am a parent and music teacher, a teacher of parents, a child development nerd and lifelong learner, a singer and wanna-be-writer, and now, I’m trying to be a blogger! I feel I have valuable ideas to share, funny stories from my own parenting adventures, and hopefully, thoughtful reflections that will speak to YOU as a struggling mommy, because we’re all in this together! As a teacher, my mission is helping families to MAKE CONNECTIONS: connections in little growing brains and emotional connections that will last a lifetime, giving young children the foundations they need to achieve their full potential, even while creating more meaningful moments for parents with their kids. I created “Parent with Purpose” classes to share practical and inspirational ideas with fellow sojourners on this important path. Click on my website mommymanders.com to get some great parenting tips, and download some of my helpful hand-outs. Since I am also a Kindermusik teacher, I believe that music is the most powerful tool for making these connections (and research proves it), so, of course, my own parenting style is pretty much Maria Von Trapp meets Mr. Rogers.”

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