A few years ago, when the children were only about 4 or 5, we started a Christmas tradition that has since become an absolute favourite in our household. It started with the discovery of this Christmas tree shaped, reusable Advent Calendar buried in the corner of our local charity shop (here’s something similar, but you could always make your own).
Rather than just fill it with chocolate (although we do that too!), I hatched a plan to sneak in a bit of fun learning into the craziness of the Advent season.
Basically, this involves popping in some sort of clue into each day’s pocket for them to work out together, which can be as simple or as complex as you like, tailoring it to their age, capability or current interests. Once deciphered, it will lead the children to a hiding place somewhere in the house, concealing either a small gift (say a book or Christmas-themed craft supplies) or a simple Christmas-themed activity, combined with an idea for a random act of kindness to do together on the day.
Initially, when they were still young and developing their reading skills, I wrote very simple clues for each day, repeating and practising key words they were learning. As they got older, these became increasingly complex and ambiguous, requiring some serious puzzling out before they could find the correct hiding place. After studying WWII, they developed an obsession with Bletchley Park and all things code related. So, for the last couple of years, I’ve used a whole variety of different codes and ciphers to disguise the clues including:
- Morse code – they genuinely got very good at reading Morse code by Christmas last year!
- Subsitution ciphers – where the plaintext (your message) is replaced with a ciphertext (the coded message), so for example, letters could be replaced by numbers according to where they fall in the alphabet (A=1, B=2 etc). The complexity can be increased by pushing down the alphabet by one position against the row of numbers, so that now A=2, B=3, C=4 etc, or reversing the alphabet so that now A=26, B=25 etc. Alternatively, each letter could be replaced by its opposite letter in a reversed alphabet, so A=Z, B=Y etc. I found it best to write out the alphabet one way with the reversed alphabet next to it to help me write these clues and stop me getting muddled!
- Transposition ciphers – where the units of plaintext are rearranged in a different, and usually complex, order, but the letters themselves are not changed. For example, you could write the words in the clue backwards. To make it harder, you could push all the words together with no spaces, break them up into two or three letter segments and then write these chunks backwards! So, a clue, “I’m with the chocolate” becomes “wmI hti eht ohc loc eta”.
- Disguised messages – where the secret message is hidden inside the text written in the clue. For example, reading every second or third letter of the riddle could actually spell out a concealed clue for them to follow. If we read every third letter of this message for example: “Off for rainy dip, Greeta”, you reveal the clue “fridge”.
- Pigpen ciphers (also known as tic-tac-toe, Masonic, Napolean or the Freemason’s cipher) in which each letter is represented by a symbol. See this picture:
This year though, as their foreign language skills are improving, I’ve decided to write their clues in Spanish for them to translate. The puzzles include a mixture of words they know along with unfamiliar words. I plan to ask them to have a go at working out the meaning, but if they can’t, to use a dictionary to look up the unknown words.
I’ve tried to use a lot of repetition of the new words over the 24 clues so that hopefully they’ll start to remember them! So, for example, quite a few of the clues start: Estoy escondido en…, which means I’m hiding in…, or Hace frio/calor al lado de este/esta, which means It’s hot/cold next to this…, or Atrápame antes de que me caiga de este/esta…, which means Catch me before I fall off this…. I’ve also made sure to use lots of prepositions, such as in, behind, under, next to etc, which is an area we’ve recently learned and will review at the end of November just in time for the start of Advent.
When I first set up this tradition, I scoured the charity shops in November for cheap, good picture books for them to discover in the hiding places each day, which we’d then snuggle down and read together. As they got older, we moved on to Christmas craft supplies, such as glitter star stickers, plain wooden Christmas tree baubles to decorate, paper chains to make etc.
But for the last few years, the clues have led them to a note describing the day’s fun Christmas activity to do together. These tend to be a mixture of cheap activities to do at home, such as icing the Christmas cake, baking Christmas treats or dancing to Christmas music, combined with a few, more expensive treats, such as ice skating, or a visit to the local pantomime or theatre. To give you an idea, here are the list of activities we have planned for this year:
- Dec 1st: Gather around the piano and sing Christmas carols together.
- Dec 2nd: Make Advent wreaths at church.
- Dec 3rd: Make Christmas cards together (I’ve ordered a set of these Nativity pop-out cards for them to decorate but you could easily make your own).
- Dec 4th: Cinderella Pantomime at local theatre.
- Dec 5th: Make mince pies together.
- Dec 6th: Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol drama workshop with Bindlesticks.
- Dec 7th: Make snowflake decorations for the house.
- Dec 8th: Decorate the Christmas tree and set up the Nativity set.
- Dec 9th: Dress up and join the living Nativity at a local farm museum, listening to the Nativity story & carolling together.
- Dec 10th: Decorate brown recyclable paper to make their own Christmas wrapping paper & make their own gift tags.
- Dec 11th: Make some fudge to give as gifts to the teachers of all their clubs.
- Dec 12th: Friend gift making day – construct some Hama bead bowls and/or photo collage framed pictures.
- Dec 13th: Home Ed Christmas party!
- Dec 14th: Make Christmas crackers.
- Dec 15th: Watch Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol at local theatre.
- Dec 16th: Bake gingerbread and honey & spice cookies.
- Dec 17th: Select a small food gift at the local Christmas markets.
- Dec 18th: Snuggle up by the fire with hot chocolate and read all our Christmas books together.
- Dec 19th: Sing Christmas carols at the local castle.
- Dec 20th: Watch The Snowman (a classic!).
- Dec 21st: Ice the Christmas cake.
- Dec 22nd: Dance to Christmas music with as much wild abandon as you like! / Go to our friend’s Christmas party (and maybe combine the two!).
- Dec 23rd: Christmas carol sing along at the Royal Albert Hall.
- Dec 24th: Open your Christmas Eve box as soon as it gets dark! This is another much-loved Christmas tradition in our house. The Christmas Eve box contains new Christmas pyjamas; dressing gowns or slippers if needed; a new Christmas book and film; and some hot chocolate and marshmallows. The idea is to open it up as it gets dark, slip on their new PJs, read the Christmas book and snuggle down together in front of the fire with their hot chocolates to watch the film together. Bliss!
The Kindness Activities
Alongside their Christmas treat for each day, we like to add in a simple kindness activity, ranging from sending supportive and loving messages to people to donating toys to the children’s ward at a local hospital. Personally, I’ve been extremely touched by all the love and support I’ve received from so many different people in the last month following my operation. It’s brought home to me the huge impact a simple message of support can have on an individual. Here is the list of kindness activities we have planned:
- Dec 1st: Read a Christmas story to your younger cousins.
- Dec 2nd: Donate food to the collection point at the church.
- Dec 3rd: Call your grandparents for a chat.
- Dec 4th: Give each other massages.
- Dec 5th: At multisports & karate today, tell jokes to make people them laugh!
- Dec 6th: At home ed group today, compliment at least five friends.
- Dec 7th: Make Christmas packs for the homeless (including for e.g. baked goodies, gloves/scarves/hats and warm socks).
- Dec 8th: Decorate a glass jar and fill it with “20 things I love about you” as a gift for someone.
- Dec 9th: Make a token book of free jobs to do for mummy & daddy!
- Dec 10th: Send daddy a love message at work.
- Dec 11th: Make some fudge to give as gifts to the teachers of all their clubs.
- Dec 12th: Give someone flowers/a plant.
- Dec 13th: Give out 20 hugs!
- Dec 14th: Write out thank you notes and give presents to our lovely post lady and bin men.
- Dec 15th: Bake some gingerbread and honey & spice cookies and take these along with a selection of teas to the dermatology department at our local hospital as a thank you.
- Dec 16th: Collect up all the mugs after coffee at church today.
- Dec 17th: Donate toys to the children’s department of our local hospital or the doctor’s surgery.
- Dec 18th: Pick up rubbish on the beach.
- Dec 19th: Send five messages of love and support to friends/family.
- Dec 20th: Hold open the door to someone today.
- Dec 21st: Make the evening meal!
- Dec 22nd: Tidy up each other’s rooms/do a job for each other.
- Dec 23rd: Say hello and smile at everyone you meet today.
- Dec 24th: Decide on your own random act of kindness for today.
This tradition is something the children and I look forward to every year. At a time when the nights are drawing in and the weather is getting gloomier, it builds not only a sense of excitement and anticipation for the main event, Christmas Day, but also a sense of togetherness and love for our family, friends and wider community. Our version of hygge!