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Christmas countdown: Be creative with advent calendar surprises

I have funny and somewhat inaccurate -- according to my mom and sister -- memories of my family's adventures with advent calendars. Every November, my mom would buy a new advent calendar for my sister and me to countdown the days until Christmas. Each morning, starting on Dec. 1, we'd stare at the calendar until we found the number that matched that day's date and open that "window." Inside the window we'd find a biblical verse, an inspirational message, a piece of candy or a cute Christmas image.

My mother, sister and I agree that there was always a lot of excitement about the arrival of a new advent calendar but then our stories differ. I recall arguing with my sister over who got to open the December 1st window and then taking turns opening windows from that day on. My mom remembers us fighting about whose turn it was every day, especially the year she bought a calendar that contained a piece of chocolate beneath each window. My sister insists that I opened practically every window the whole month, sometimes opening more than one window at time, stealing the prize and resealing the window. (I have to admit that does sound like something I would have done... especially the year of the chocolate calendar.)

Anyway, it was a special tradition that Mom continued even when my sister and I moved out. Mom mailed calendars to our dorm rooms, apartments and houses. Perhaps growing tired of the 30-plus-year tradition, a few years ago my mom gave me the calendar photographed with this post. I have to sheepishly admit that when I first opened the package, I was disappointed to see the permanent calendar. No more paper calendars featuring princesses, cute puppies and chocolate candies? The environmentalist in me appreciated the nondisposable nature of the gift but I knew I'd need to be creative to keep the calendar "fresh" each year.

Now, I've come to realize this advent calendar is the perfect vessel for 24 days of little surprises. Notes, candy, tiny ornaments, lip balm and gum fit perfectly into the calendar's pockets. Parents can hide tiny toys and candy (I hear chocolate is still popular) in each day's compartment. Small pieces of paper with Bible verses or inspirational messages can also be tucked inside each pocket. If your children love puzzles, you could place a few puzzle pieces into each day's window and build a bit of a puzzle every day. Mystery lovers could include a new clue each day and solve a mystery on Christmas Eve. Each day's window could reveal a task leading up to the completion of a project or including items to be checked off a master scavenger hunt list.