6 steps to a relaxed Christmas: make that tradition happen

I know you’ve been there, like me—on the evening of November 30, you realize the official month of Christmas begins tomorrow, so you’d better whip together your family’s advent calendar.

Every year, I have grand ambitions to thoughtfully, methodically prepare our holiday season with an Advent calendar or Jesse Tree. And every year, I scrap it together at the last minute. Or scrap the idea for next year. Not the biggest deal in the world, of course, but I do wish I had more time to enjoy the preparation of these sweet, simple family traditions.

Well guess what? I’ll enjoy them more if I start preparing now. I know, who wants to think about Christmas activities the week of Thanksgiving? But there’s only two weeks until December, so by doing a little bit of prep this week, you’ll be sitting prettier by the first of the month.

Prepare a family tradition

Christmas is just as enjoyable without a calendar telling us exactly how we’re going to have fun that day, but I find it helpful to get some of those favorite festivities crossed off with a game plan of sorts.

A meaningful tradition also helps our family collectively center our focus on the holiday’s most significant meaning for us: celebrating the birth of Jesus.

1. Advent calendar

I wrote last year about our family’s latest Advent calendar—a simple, empty frame with ribbon to hang our daily activities. I used clothespins to bedeck the ribbons with folded bookmarks Mod-podged with scrapbook paper numbers.

Inside, I used Sticky Notes to scribble out a daily activity. It’s not fancy, but it worked like a charm, mostly because I could move them around when needed. It’s not much fun to “build a snowman” when there’s no snow on the ground.

Head here to read how I made it, including all 25 of our family’s activities. Kara of Simple Kids will also soon share her advent calendar activity ideas.

2. Advent wreath

Similar-but-different to the calendar, the advent wreath marks with a lit candle the four Sundays leading to Christmas. Usually accompanied by a poem, song, or some other communal activity, there are just as many ways to use an Advent wreath as there are Christian traditions.

I’m incredibly excited about a new e-book released from my friends at What’s in the Bible? (I really, really love everything they do)—it’s called Everyday Emmanuel, and it includes more ideas than time for incorporating an Advent wreath in your home.

It’s also filled with ideas for a 25-day Advent calendar, printables, games, songs, poems, devotionals, crafts, AND codes for private-access videos to stream.

If you use the code SIMPLEMOM, you’ll get 50% off the e-book and DVD Why Do They Call it Christmas? when you buy them together—only $14.99.

Another resource— Caleb Voskamp, son of one of my dear friends, Ann, creates gorgeous cradle-to-cross wreaths that you can use for both the Advent season leading to Christmas and the Lent season leading to Easter. They are heirloom-quality works of art.

3. Jesse Tree

A Jesse Tree is similar to a countdown calendar, starting at the beginning of the month and leading to Christmas. With this, however, you start at the beginning of the Bible and read excerpts from Genesis to the birth of Jesus Christ, then hang a corresponding ornament to a special tree.

This tree can be anything from a second traditional Christmas tree, to a tabletop statue of a tree, to a construction paper cutout of a tree taped to the wall. In previous years, we’ve gathered branches from our yard and arranged them simply in a mason jar or pot.

There are all sorts of resources online for Jesse Tree devotionals, and you can creatively make or gather your own ornaments however you like. If you’d like to make it easy, Ann has a wonderful PDF of daily devotions and printable ornaments your kids can color. I’ve found that this devotional resonates well with older children.

If you’ve got younger kids, I love ohAmanda’s Truth in the Tinsel. 24 devotionals, a simple craft ornament per day, clues, and fun printables. It’s short and simple enough for the short crowd in your home. She’s created the craft supply list in the front, so don’t feel overwhelmed at the craft-a-day thought: it’s easy. And fun.

Get 20% off Truth in the Tinsel with the coupon code SIMPLEMOM.

4. St. Nicholas Day

St. Nicholas Day is December 6 according to most calendars; it’s a day set aside to tell the story of St. Nicholas, a man of faith whose goodness and generosity grew out of his love for God. It enriches our understanding of Santa Claus by showing the real historical person who inspired the familiar legend and traditions.

Having a simple family celebration for St. Nicholas Day is a fun way to incorporate the history behind the man, particularly if you’d rather separate the fun of Santa from the observance of the birth of Jesus.

The Dutch tradition involves setting out wooden shoes the evening of December 5, then the next morning, finding candy or some other small toy in the shoes. There are plenty of good ideas on the Internet for a simple family St. Nicholas Day celebration, along with myriad books for sharing the history behind the infamous man.

5. Learning the history behind Christmas carols

Last year, we also started singing one carol per week, each evening before the kids went to bed. We’re not musical in the slightest (I’m sure anyone walking by would have fainted), but we love music. Hymns are a dying art, and the best are great works of poetry that drip with meaning.

We selected one carol from Christmas Carols for a Kid’s Heart, which includes a CD, and we’d read the accompanying story to learn more of the song’s meaning. I admit that the book is a bit on the saccharine side, so we just used it as a springboard to look up more online about the carol’s history, and we’d frequently use a different rendition of the song. But the book was still useful, and I love that my kids are learning these classic hymns.

The key to starting a new holiday tradition is to not do too much. All these ideas above? They’re just ideas. Activity overload causes the opposite reaction from your well-intentioned goals with these traditions—you’re stressed, your busy, and you’re tired. Not good.

Just focus on one or two traditions you’d like to incorporate, and use the easy button—printables and pre-made crafts are just fine. No need to reinvent the wheel—the ultimate goal is family togetherness during the holidays.

So your task this week? Decide which of your traditions you value most, then make a game plan to see it happen.


Head here to watch for all of this year’s six steps (and feel free to pin it to make it easy for you to find).

What’s one of your family’s favorite traditions?

Tsh Oxenreider

Tsh is the founder of this blog and just finished traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

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  1. I agree that a little preparing ahead of the holiday chaos is a great idea. I love the idea of establishing holiday traditions, but sometimes I get overwhelmed in choosing the ones I want to stick year after year. I remember as a kid having a birthday cake and singing happy birthday to Jesus. That was fun!

  2. Beautiful ideas and reads… Thank you for your continual inspiration!

  3. I am seeing all these wonderful advent calendars and must admit I feel a bit like a slacker mom using the .99cent Aldi’ chocolate filled special! However my kids really do love it so I think we will stick with it. We are adding a new tradition this year, for the first time ever we are making the trip to a tree farm to get a real tree.

  4. Robin from Frugal Family Times says:

    Such a great list, Tsh. We are working now on our Family Adventure Advent Calendar (similar to the one you shared last year) – we’re so excited! We’ve added St Nicholas Day to the calendar because the whole Santa business is so over the top and we all wished we knew more about the real ispiration. Thanks for so many wonderful ideas!

  5. I appreciate these reminders now, especially because my husband’s birthday falls in the midst of the Christmas season, and I tend to wait to the last minute for that, too!

    My family has really enjoyed a low-key celebration of St. Nicholas Day since the kids were tiny. We tried the Jesse tree a few years ago and they just weren’t old enough yet, but I think we’re going to give it another go this year.

    Thanks for the reminders, while I still have plenty of time to prepare the follow-through 🙂

  6. Lovely list. Have you come across any another wooden advent wreaths? I checked out the link you included and, while lovely, it isn’t what I have in mind. I’m looking for something like what you might find in a German Christmas market (e.g. wooden, simple, embellished with trees, etc.) Thanks!

    • I haven’t, but if you do find something, please add it here to the list so that others down the road who might be looking can find it, too! Thanks. 🙂

  7. I do a Jesse Tree “clothesline” using a devotional book and real ornaments I’ve collected. Truthfully, it’s not a cheap option (ornaments can be expensive…especially when you need 25 of them!), BUT…I love how pretty it all looks and that it will last for many many years (as opposed to googly eyed sheep you made with cotton balls and Elmer’s glue). Now is a good time to get started on buying ornaments with sales coming up though!

  8. “Clothespins to bedeck the ribbons with folded bookmarks Mod-podged with scrapbook paper numbers…” Looks pretty fancy to me! Nicely done.

    I like all these ideas and have been thinking about what to do for advent this week already, so the timing is great! Think I’ll check out the Truth in the Tinsel book for my kidlets this year. Last year I made a big calendar using a roll of Ikea paper, and we filled in each day with scriptures and stickers/drawings that fit. It was lots of fun. Think I’ll marry that idea with new tips from the Tinsel book!

  9. Growing up we used an advent devotional in the evening called We Light the Candles with an advent wreath. In the morning before school we had a box with little doors, each one containing a miniature ornament that we would hang on a miniature tree. It was so much fun. I wrote a devotional for my mom about five years ago, to replace the one we used as children we had long grown out of. I finally got around to publishing it this year. As We Wait is available for Kindle and Nook and hopefully in paper form by the end of this week.

  10. One of my favorite memories as a kid was going to pick the perfect for us Christmas Tree out in the woods. We lived in Northern MN. The tree farm wasn’t around then and the snow was deep. I don’t know how my parents did it with 5 kids, but I hold this memory close to my heart. Now, as a Mother, I take my boys to the tree farm and we pick out the perfect tree for us, take a horse drawn wagon ride, run through the rows and rows of trees and we have fun. Then we go home and we attempt to get the tree up and let it warm up as we have a fire, drink hot chocolate and listen to our favorite Christmas music.

  11. We have an advent calendar my mom gave me when I was pregnant with my first. It is a nativity scene, and each figure rests in a pocket pouch until velcro-ed to the stable. I printed up Bible verses to go with each one, and though they’re now worn, a few verses are missing, and we forget some days in the mad rush to school, it’s a lovely way to usher in the Christmas season.

  12. Thanks for mentioning Truth in the Tinsel, Tsh!

    I so love the idea of stories behind the Christmas carols. My kids were jumping around singing ‘O Christmas Tree” with their own 6 and 4yo lyrics today. 😉

  13. Has anyone seen the DVD Why Do We Call It Christmas? I think my kids would love it, and I think it is cool that the movie points toward Christ as it explains the different traditions. However, both of my little ones believe in Santa, so I am wondering if the DVD would ‘”spill the beans”? 😉

    • Our family loves the DVD. We all learned a lot about the history of St. Nicholas. I don’t think it overtly “spills the beans”, but I wasn’t worried about it since we don’t emphasize Santa or say that he brings gifts. It would be interesting to hear what a Santa-brings-the-presents family thinks though.

    • We kinda walk the middle line about Santa—he fills the stockings, but we don’t make a big deal out of it. Our kids have watched the DVD numerous times, and our younger ones haven’t registered anything, but Tate (our almost 8-year-old) has learned the truth—but that’s mostly because she’s getting older. Overall, I don’t think it overly spills the beans, but I can understand your wondering. They’re very responsive on their Facebook page; you might want to ask them there?

      • I should clarify that she didn’t find out about Santa directly from that DVD—she was already asking tons of questions.

  14. When I was in school,we always celebrated St Nicholas Day. I’d forgotten about it until a trip to Germany last year, when I found a bag of goodies (chocolate Santa, an orange, some nuts) outside my hotel room door on December 6th. Looking forward to introducing my kids to that tradition this year!

  15. Thanks for the links! I’m posting it in our church’s women’s group – because we did an Advent Jesse Tree ornament swap this year, but I know there were some people who weren’t able to make ornaments and they might appreciate the Truth in the Tinsel or Advent Calendar options!

  16. Elizabeth Kane says:

    It’s true! Christmas is just right around the corner, and I know if I don’t start preparing now, I’ll be kicking myself that I didn’t do it earlier. I always get that feeling that there are so many things to do to celebrate during the days of the month, but I don’t know where to begin. Starting any tradition feels so overwhelming (just thinking about all the Pinterest project boards right now are blowing my mind). But I like your don’t do too much – takes the pressure off.

  17. The last few years, I’ve done an advent activity calendar that incorporated an occasional treat. I used small chinese food style favor boxes from the dollar tree that I hung from twine. To make it more festive, I bought light green boxes and wrote the numbers in gold pen on burgundy stars that I attached to the boxes. I hung the boxes with clothespins I painted burgundy. This was great and encouraged us to think about the season every day. We did service projects and fun things each day and they got Christmas socks and stickers or a piece of candy every 3 or 4 days. We also do an advent wreath on Sunday evenings and eat our dinner in the dining room on the China. Very exciting to the kiddos even if we’re eating sandwiches! This year I’m considering how to still carry on this tradition without going insane as I’m due with number 4 on December 6. Maybe Truth in the Tinsel?

  18. LOVE the idea of Christmas carols and the story behind them.. Am gonna check if I can get it here in India:-).. Our traditions are fairly simple so that our 4 yo can be a part of them, easily.. We do a LOT of holiday baking together, so while our goodies may not be picture perfect, they’re filled with lots of memories:-) Also, we have the tradition of the ‘stocking on the door’ and starting from the 15th till the 25th , she gets a small stocking stuffer every day in the morning.. She LOVES it, thinking that Santa’s doing his rounds already.. Yes, we believe in Santa too:-)

  19. Our favorite tradition is to wrap 25 Christmas books and place them under the tree. My kids take turns opening one ‘gift’ each day until Christmas. My kids are 18 and 13 and they still love this tradition, even though all of the books are picture books they have read every year since they were little. It is just one way we can make time to slow down a little each day during what can be a busy month.

  20. Thanks for mentioning St. Nicholas Day – also known as ‘Sinterklaas.’ My parents were born in Holland and this is when they got a small treat – there were no other presents at the actual Christmas – that was a time for church celebrations and a nice family dinner. I, personally, like to separate the idea of St. Nicholas from Christmas Day, so we decided to follow this tradition with our kids – they put out their shoes on Dec. 5…and wait to see if they get some candy or some rocks in their shoes! Some local Dutch stores will also have a Sinterklaas celebration, with traditional Dutch treats and a visit from Sinterklaas. We still do some gifts on Christmas Eve, but we have never told the kids that they come from Santa – they know that the gifts are coming from us.

  21. Lovely reading! It reminded me of Christmas season of my childhood: St. Nicholaus Day, many handmade gifts, singing the carols, decorating the tree and all the food cooked from scratch at home. Incredible mixture of scents spreading from our kitchen into the whole house…Seeing now the crowds in the shops, piles of gifts with little personal meaning and houses decorated and looking more like some amusement park … I feel somewhat sentimental when remembering those childhood festivities and true joy.

  22. A couple of years ago I bought a Fisher Price Little People Advent calendar and we love it! It is a Nativity scene above with 25 pockets below – each pocket has a character from the scene that gets placed into the scene (velcro) each day, and Baby Jesus is the last one. We have done it very informally before now, just briefly talking about the character as the boys take turns placing it in the scene, but I think we should try adding in appropriate Bible verses each day to make it more of a devotional time.
    I grew up doing the Advent wreath with candles and a devotion, but that doesn’t seem to fit our family. I’m glad we’ve found something that helps us celebrate Advent and fits us well.
    Thanks for all of the other ideas and resources!

  23. The Jesse Tree is so good for teaching children the whole Christmas story. A beautiful way to teach children in family devotions by hanging up an ornament and reading the Scripture for each ornament. I make a felt set:

  24. Lovely reading! It reminded me of the Christmas seasons of my childhood: St. Nicholaus Day, many handmade gifts, singing the carols, decorating the tree and all the food cooked from scratch at home. Incredible mixture of scents spreading from our kitchen into the whole house…I feel somewhat sentimental when remembering those childhood festivities and true joy.

  25. This is great! I have an Advent box with all my Christmas decorations that comes out every year in November. I love new ideas to make the season of anticipation meaningful. I have taught a workshop on several occasions to equip other moms to build their own traditions. I will certainly add your ideas and resources to that talk. Perhaps, I will link to your blog if I have a chance to post some of my ideas as well!

  26. Just wanted you to know that your Advent calendar last year inspired me to make one very similar. I got a lot of comments on it. Best of all, my family is looking forward to doing it again this year!

  27. Tsh, these ideas are beautiful. And thanks for re-emphasizing the idea about keeping things simple and stress-free. I love how deliberate you are about your Christmas traditions, and I love how the emphasis on each of these ideas is family unity and turning our hearts to God. You are such an example to me, and I appreciate all the wisdom I glean from your website!
    April (from Power of Moms)

  28. Love your idea of clothespins and ribbon. Extremely cute.
    One year, I set up a tiny tower of mini flowerpots on our mantle. Inside each pot was an activity, “thought of the day” or a candy. The kids loved it! Of course, not everyone has that many flowerpots lying around, but I’m a gardener with a mini-flowerpot obsession, so it was easy for me.

    It looked really cute, but I worried the whole time that we’d have an earthquake and it would become a disaster! (We live in Los Angeles) But we made it through and felt very ‘garden-y’ by Christmas. LOL

  29. Hi Tsh, I just came across this post of yours and just in time, too! The Advent season snuck up on me and I mentioned to my kids that maybe I wouldn’t do an Advent wreath this year. You would have thought that I said I was inviting the Grinch for Christmas! The feast of St. Nicholas is just around the corner as well and there would be some sad, sad faces if the shoes were not filled. I’ll keep it simple. But some traditions are just like breathing. Thanks for your inspirations!

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