24 Clutter Free Advent Calendar Gift Ideas

I yearned for an advent calendar growing up. I thought they were the height of cool and reserved for the rich.

The calendars I envied? The cheap ones with a chocolate for each day.

The 80’s were a simpler time I guess.

Now parents blow up December with more gifts than their little ones can handle. Advent calendars are homemade affairs and individualized and there are additional presents to open each day and trips to Disneyland are revealed.

I love the idea of advent calendars but I wanted to do one that was less about something to unwrap and more about something to experience or celebrate.

I was also leery of my three year old having a chocolate for breakfast 24 days in a row. He doesn’t handle sugar well so it would inevitably be the beginning of a day of meltdowns.

With this in mind I’m making an advent calendar for Henry that is mostly clutter free. I’ll use a lot of notes about events or special activities, rather than gifts, to make it activity focused. My goals are to:

  • Make the ordinary special.
  • Celebrate traditions and create new ones.
  • Not spend on things we haven’t already planned for.

It would be a lot easier to hit up the dollar store and fill each day with a tiny gift. But small plastic soldiers and strawberry erasers kicking around my house is less appealing than putting a few hours into planning out and filling our mostly clutter-free advent calendar.

I have a feeling some of you would also prefer a bit of work to a pre-Christmas home already filled with cheap toys.

So here are some clutter free gift ideas from our advent calendar along with a few more I am keeping for years ahead.

A lot of these ideas are activities that you can describe with words and a picture/figure on a note. Use gift tags or make small cards out of gift wrap for an easy and frugal note option.

24 Clutter Free Advent Calendar Gift Ideas


  1. Christmas Trivia Game: take their mind off the gifts with a game of trivia. Prize for the winner: putting the ornament on the top of the tree or be acting Santa on Christmas Day. Here’s over 100 Christmas trivia questions.
  2. Chocolate: Not for every morning but a small chocolate at breakfast is a fun start to the day for adults or kids.
  3. School Holiday Concert: if you have children in school you probably have a holiday concert on the books. Mark the day with your advent calendar and ask your children to sing one of their songs over breakfast.
  4. Going Caroling/See Carolers/Sing Carols: If you’re a musical family hit the streets of your neighborhood with your voices. If you’re shy stay home and sing along to your favorites.
  5. Book Night: announce a reading of a holiday themed book. My favorite: The Polar Express. Can’t get through that one without crying.
  6. Movie Night: My favorite adult Christmas movies are White Christmas and Scrooged. This year I want to introduce Henry to the classic Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. I remember begging to be able to stay up late to watch that movie on television. Oh the days before DVDs, streaming and digital video recorders!
  7. Holiday Lights Walk: announce an evening excursion to a neighborhood or park with a holiday lights display.
  8. Pick Out Your Christmas Tree: today is the day. Get your family excited that morning for tree selection. If you have older kids go over what species of trees will be available and see if they can identify them. Here is a guide to six common Christmas tree species.
  9. Holiday Lunch Day: make a packed lunch special with a theme or a treat. This idea for using a gingerbread cookie cutter on sandwiches is cute and not too time consuming.
  10. New Toothbrush Day: Not completely clutter free but hey, it’s good to squeeze a few health focused gifts into the month of December. New toothbrushes for the whole family! Schedule this gift after a chocolate day as a reminder about good oral hygiene.
  11. Tickets to an event: I already have tickets purchased for a Christmas Pantomime, the Salvation Army band concert and the Santa Train so you can bet I’ll be using those activities as the day’s advent gift. If you already have a full schedule of events don’t make up new ones for your calendar – just announce what’s already planned.
  12. Hang Special Ornaments: if you have a few special and loved tree ornaments keep them to hang as advent calendar activities.
  13. Write a Christmas Wish List: keep the writing space and time allotted brief. And no edits! Ask your children, and yourself, to include a few wishes for the coming year that aren’t physical presents. Ex. learn how to ride bike without training wheels, see relatives more frequently, etc.
  14. Hang Outdoor Lights: turn this ‘to-do’ activity into an event for the family. There should be applause and a lot of oohing and ahhing when the lights are turned on.
  15. Christmas Tree Trimming Day: don’t turn this into a chore that you complete once the kids are in bed. Ask all of them to help and be involved. Particularly with the untangling lights and sorting of ornaments. If given the time, even my three year old can do a decent job sorting red and gold ornaments into separate piles.
  16. Food Bank or Toy Drive donation: if your children have a toy or food bank drive at their school pair your advent activity with it. Otherwise turn a grocery shop into a chance to donate nonperishable food to your local food bank or a trip to the mall as an opportunity for your children to pick a toy for a child that wouldn’t have a Christmas otherwise.
  17. Holiday Baking: this could be as simple as having the family brainstorm a list of treats and breads they want to bake and as time and effort heavy as actually baking. If there is one special treat that you make every year ear mark it for this day. PS. My favorite all-purpose cookie dough recipe is this basic butter cookie dough that you can turn into a multitude of treats. It also freezes well in rolls so you can divide up the labor time. If you have allergies or don’t eat grains/dairy check out the gluten/dairy-free list of treats here.
  18. Book Morning: read a holiday themed book during breakfast. If you have children that can read ask them to read passages out loud.
  19. Goat or Flock of Chickens from Heifer International: start the conversation about charitable giving in the lead up to Christmas Day.
  20. Hot Chocolate Breakfast: this could be as simple as warming a mug of chocolate milk (soya, goat or cow’s) in the microwave.
  21. Get Ready For Santa: do a preemptive toy, book and clothing declutter session to make room for gifts. Donate any unwanted items.
  22. Meal by Candlelight: candles aren’t just for romance. They bring a festive spirit to a meal. Dim the lights and enjoy. As always, be safe with a lit flame.
  23. Random Act of Kindness: this could be for a stranger or family member. Have a few ideas ready and let the children think of more. It could be anything from taking the banana bread loaf you just baked to school for the teacher’s lounge or raking your neighbors leaves. Ideas and inspiration: a sweet list of 101 random acts of kindness and a wonderful post from a mom who had her children help her with a birthday celebration of random acts of kindness.
  24. Hang Mistletoe: and use it!

The in-hand gifts that will be included in our advent calendar: a few days of chocolate, some tiny Brio figures and a few ornaments for him to put on the tree.

More mostly clutter-free advent calendar ideas:

Anyone else have clutter free advent calendar gifts or rituals you can share with us?

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  • This year we’ll have chocolates as well as special treats and favours in the Advent Calendar.
    Treats and favours are things like: Mommy will make the bed for you, you can pick what we’ll eat for dinner, Daddy will tidy up the toys, kids can stay up and watch a DVD til late, bowling-day, ice-skating day etc.

    • I like the picking dinner and parents will do chores for you. :) That is really sweet. Filing it away. We’ve just got the hang of putting things in the bin and taking plates to kitchen – don’t want to confuse him!

  • This list is absolutely wonderful. We always encourage experiences over material items and it has resulted in some wonderful memories over the years.

    Thanks for sharing this list.

    Dan @ ZenPresence

  • We have a homemade advent calendar too. We wrap up 24 books individually and each evening one is chosen from the pile to be read alot as a family that night. During the early years of this, I would purchase a few to stretch our colletion into enough. But, I only bought the ones that I already knew to be favs from how many times we checked it out of the library. Or I would wrap some from the library with a little note to chose first so we could get it returned in a timely manner. Now, after doing this for 10 years we have 24 holiday favorites that are only brought out to read as our Advent calendar. We are a reading family so while I may constantly purge the rest of our belongings, I hang onto these books like a photo album since they hold so many sweet memories and moments for us.

  • My daughters were very young when the first velcro advent calenders came out. Now twenty years later that calendar is still a tradition in my family. My college sophomore still delights in putting a new ornament on the tree everyday. Just the act of getting the toy out of the pocket and putting it on the tree was delight enough. After Christams I roll it up and it takes no space and ready for the next year.

    • Im making one of these too. I hope they enjoy it, as they don’t know what the alternatives are! I found it a bit daunting to commit to an activity every day and have it planned in advance. I guess at their young ages, right now we’re just working on the self-control of only touching the calendar once a day, and the enjoyment of figuring out how to count down.

    • My mom made one from a kit, and it’s still a delight to hang the ornaments, even though I’m 32. I love the little elf and the gnome and the angel. I made myself a calendar from a kit, and I hope someday my kids will hang the little ornaments, too.

  • Failing on the clutter free front here. I had one lovely big present chosen and now I’m getting sucked into the whole if they’re getting this doll house from aunty then they need something to go with it etc etc + I have lots of nieces, nephews, parents and SIL BIL to buy for so started getting things in Tiger yesterday. I had suggested subscriptions to comics/magazines or groups but turns out they already have those and don’t use them really. Don’t have time to make stuff as we’re moving house at the moment. I don’t want Christmas to be all about buying stuff and I don’t want to full up other people’s houses with things they don’t need. Gave in a bit and bought items made by a friend but it still isn’t stuff they need.

  • We had a fabric calendar with a little pocket for each day when I was a kid. There was a teddy that me and my brother took it in turns to move each day. Mum put a little chocolate in each day- but as there were two of us it was only a chocolate every other day!
    I love all of your ideas, I shall file them away in case we ever have children :)

  • My calendar growing up was made of felt and each day there was a felt ornament to “put up” (Velcro on the back) on the tree. The excitement was on whose turn it was to put up the ornament, and counting down to the birth of our Savior Jesus. Advent is about the preparation of our hearts for the coming of Jesus- I’m afraid chocolates and presents and field trips don’t help me with that.
    Now with my kids we also have an Advent countdown book for kids that has daily prayers, scriptures, and activities to help my kids better understand the sacredness and the beauty of the season. After all, as all those buttons and bumper stickers wisely say, Jesus IS the reason for the season!!

    (For great tips on seasonal stuff for kids check out the blog at catholicmom.org – I love her stuff and it’s all super simple!)
    Peace and have a blessed Thanksgiving and Advent!! :)
    -Erika, crunchy mama to 3

  • i am just amazed that advert calenders have anything but chocolate in them here in England I honestly have never seen ones with anything but chocolate.

  • Thanks for the great ideas! I fold up little notes and stick in each day of our advent calendar. They say things like: “Let’s read a Christmas book tonight,” “Let’s sing Christmas carols tonight,” “Let’s do a Christmas art project tonight,” “Let’s decorate your room tonight” etc. My kids (ages 7 & 8) still love this and they look forward to it every year. I got some great new ideas for additions to my list above – thanks so much!!

  • We keep it very simple. This is especially important with 3 older kids, and husband who is an ordained Catholic deacon. Advent is a very busy season for him naturally. We like to take advantage of the early nights to spend time together at home, opting to do only one event a week when possible. Time together as a family is gift we can give ourselves.

  • Thank you sooo much for these wonderful ideas! I have done an advent calender since my boys were little, and have always stuggled with ideas, and I will be using a lot of yours this year. My children’s FAVORITE thing I have done though, is when I put in clues as to where they will find their gift. For example, I’ll put a note in the calendar that reads “hop to the kitchen window”, where they find another note that reads “crawl to the bed”, “make a funny noise as you dance to daddy’s chair”, etc. until they finally come to their gift/activity. (When they were really young I would read the notes to them as they found them). At 8 and 6, they still get so excited when one of these pops up in the advent calander! I can’t wait for my almost two year old to get in on the action this year :)

  • And this year Advent begins Dec 2, so you only need 23 ideas! (Last year it began Nov 27, though, so keep those extra ideas handy for the next time we have an early Advent!)

  • I have never heard of anything but chocolate being in an Advent Calendar. My mom made mine when I was a baby, out of felt. My sister had one too. We each had special ornaments made just for us with the special stocking for Christmas Eve. We never got the chocolate ones! My mom passed down my calendar to my son, and that’s all he will be using. Simple and clutter free. I just roll it up and it packs away with the rest of the Christmas decorations.

  • I just had to respond to this one…. My mom did an advent calendar for my daughters one year, and between the sugar and the new clutter, I wondered what was left for Christmas morning. The next year I began a new tradition in our house, inspired by a teacher I worked with who did something similar for her class.

    I have a collection of Christmas books, both religious and fun, that have slowly been gathered, a few at a time, over the years, and are part of our decorations. Every year just after Thanksgiving, I wrap up the books, one or two per package, and we open one “gift” each night in December to read together. My girls alternate selecting the package to unwrap. Although my DDs know they are the same books as the previous years, each has her favorites, and they try to guess and find them. Unwrapping these are extra fun because these are the only packages I wrap in paper — it takes one roll, purchased during post-Christmas sales. (I have been using the same cloth gift bags for other gifts since the second year of my marriage when my husband read the idea in Dear Abby and suggested it 20+ years ago!)

    I am a librarian, and, ironically, OWN very few books. But I love my Christmas books, some dating back to MY childhood. We recently moved overseas, and after paring down what I had to our absolute favorites, the selected books moved with us to continue this tradition. This will be the 7th year, and my middle-schooler still snuggles with us for this special story time tradition!

  • OHHH, I love this list. Thank you for giving this wonderful idea. I’m definitely goin to use this with my kids.

  • I had little wreaths on my children’s bedroom doors. In their advent calendar box (from Target, I think), I put an ornament for each in each day. They got to dress their personal wreath the way they liked, getting warmed up for a real tree trimming later on in the month. They were the same every year but mixed up. Honestly, you can get a bag of whatever they like at the dollar store and stick it on hooks for the advent wreath lol.

  • We do a lot of these things, although not the exact same list. We double up a few (more than one baking day, and more than one movie night, come to mind). We also make and hang pinecone birdfeeders on the Winter Solstice. Some of these are also things we do, but in November, so they wouldn’t go in the advent calendar (purging toys, for instance). And, I put toothbrushes in stockings, so I wouldn’t do the toothbrush day, but I like it. :)

  • We had several very different advent calendars, when I was a child. (I think that tradition is a little older over here…) We had some years with “treats”, but these weren’t only chocolates, but also nuts and tangerines. We had a story advent calendar once which told a christmas story in 24 short chapters which we read together in the evenings. One year we had a tea advent calendar with 24 different teas of which we would brew a pot in the evening and share that while the whole family sang christmas songs, read stories and so on. I loved these years in which we had a quiet family “advent hour” every evening – triggered through that calendar.
    Another very favourite one was a handmade window hanging made from translucent paper one year. This was lovely (and still hangs in my Moms house). It showed the Christmas birth scene and each day we would unwrap one sheep, shepherd, star, crib, king and finally Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. We hung that item on the window every day and it was great to see this window hanging growing from one little star to a big, colourful piece of artwork.
    You see that we mainly had “family calendars” instead of individual ones. I liked particularly that aspect.

  • Love this list! This is the second year we’ve done an activity-based Advent and I just started working on the list yesterday. One of my favorite activities from last year were special shopping and meal days with each parent (breakfast and shop with mom, lunch and shop with dad on another day). It was really nice to have the one on one time with our oldest. Not sure how we’ll do that now that the twins are old enough to be included…

  • This is a great idea! It mimics the excitement of finding out what’s behind the little window on the calendar each day and you’ll make 24 holiday memories in the process.

  • We always had advent calendars as kids, and they were just paper. You opened a flap each day and behind it was a picture or a saying. It was just a way of counting (impatiently!) the days until Christmas. I didn’t learn there were ones with chocolate until I was an adult! I found a similar one for my son (ordered online) and we used it 2 years ago; I saved it but then couldn’t find it last year. As he is too young (now kindergarten age) to have much sense of established traditions, I just failed to mention it last year and we skipped it; it’s since resurfaced, and I plan to use it again this year. The year after I may have to get another, as his memory is improving, of course! But for now we are good, and that’s 6 Christmases (and one paper advent calendar with no nibbles or chocolates) in.

  • A friend of mine puts corny Christmas jokes in hers. Then she posts them on Facebook so we all get a giggle.

    Mine is made of felt and has pockets for tiny treats. Last year I cut out sparkly felt circles and used it like a felt board. Might get a little fancier this year. I like the idea of nuts or dried fruit, though I will have to load it nightly as there’s no realistic hope small boy can stop himself from exploring.

  • It’s a different holiday altogether, but for my husband and I, our biggest celebration of the year was the Firebird festival: http://www.firebirdfestival.com/

    The website does the festival absolutely no justice: it is amazing. A group of nutters — i mean cultural creatives — scavenge material and build a massive wooden bird. other artists create plays, and the whole town opens to celebrate this big bird. There’s live music in the cafes and in the streets, and the community gathers to make giant puppets and small clay baby phoenixes. People dress in costumes, and fire dancers preform in the streets.

    Thousands of people gather on the day of the festival for food, crafts, music, plays, and community. You can put intentions in a box that will go into the bird, and there’s another box for what you want to let go of. Each one you put in is a $1, and that goes to revitalizing the town.

    Then, at 7 pm, everyone gathers at one end of main street. it’s silent, and people are excited. There’s a crazy hush in the air, and a snow flurry always starts right then. There’s a drumming troop, fire dancers, and several people picked via name-draw to carry the baby phoenixes, the boxes of intentions and things to let go of. Puppets follow at increments in the crowd. An invocation is spoken, and we march around town making as much noise as humanly possible — drumming, clapping hands, hooting and hollering. We march from one end of town down to the massive bird that some nutters — i mean cultural creatives — built.

    Then, we march around that bird making as much noise as humanly possible. And then, the drumming crescendos and everything stops, it’s back to hush. Then the fire dancers dance around the bird in silence. and then the drummers start a low tone. A person speaks an invocation.

    The crowd begins to whisper: burn it! burn the bird! and it starts to ripple through the crowd.

    The person leading the invocation draws one last name — on blessed and sacred name — from the draw. This person is brought up and given a torch. The drums pick up, and the chant begins: burn! burn! burn! burn!

    the people who were chosen first go and put the boxes of baby clay birds, intentions and things we want to let go of into different parts of the bird. the little doors are closed. the light that was in the eye of the bird is removed by one of the nutters — i mean cultural creatives — and the musicians who had been playing all over town have gathered onto one stage and start to ‘jam’ together. Drums, chanting, jamming musicians!

    It crescendos around the single torchbearer until s/he is given the signal, and walks up and sets this massive, wooden bird alight. And so is burns. The crowd cheers, oohs and awes as the phoenix takes it’s most beautiful last flight up in flames. We want it collapse in on itself, until it is not even bigger than a camp fire. The crowd thins, and people go home.

    And then there are those of us who tend the fire. The medicine workers. We stay all night — it’s cold, and it snows on us. It is silent, and calm, and part of the night so deep and crystal clear that you see yourself again for the first time. We silently watch as it all burns down.

    By dawn, it is a small fire, mostly ash. and by 8 am, it is done. We begin to move through the ashes, bringing out and dusting off the little clay birds. Thousands of pains released, thousands of prayers sent to heaven in fire, and little clay symbols of hope and renewal drawn from the ashes. We put them in a box. We take them down to the village arts center, where people will observe them — sitting in the front window — for a week before individuals come to claim the one they made. Some will be auctioned off to support local charities.

    And so it goes, year after year.

    We haven’t been since we moved to the other side of the planet, but we know some nutters — i mean cultural creatives. We are starting small.

    We have a design for a small, paper mache phoenix who will be marched around town with those whom are interested. it’s feathers will be intentions and things we want to let go of, written on, dipped in red dye (natural), and pasted to the frame.

    On January 4, 2013, we will march this bird with as much fanfare as we nutters can manage from it’s current home in our village art center (where it is slowly being built in the front window with the “why” behind it), down to the beach, and we will invocate and drum and make noise and send up all of our hopes and pains in a glorious, cleansing fire. And we will tend the fire until it goes out, finding medicine in the tending, and healing in the ashes.

  • While I do agree that experiences are more meaningful around the holidays, I find the 24 activities in the “clutter free advent calendar” to be quite daunting. Is it in keeping with a minimalist lifestyle to have to do these activities every day? I have 4 children ( 16, 15, 12, and 11) and they have been looking forward to the very simple cardborad advent calendar every year since they can remember. The piece of chocolate is so tiny that I have never given it a second thought. I fear that if you start all of these actiivites you will need to keep up the tradition year after year …. and when your children are older there are so many acitivities that they are involved with through school, sports , church , etc. that keeping up this “activities advent calendar” tradition will become completely opposite of the minimalist lifestyle.

    To keep things simple in our family we have only a few simple traditions that we keep cardboard advent calendar… picking out and cutting our own tree at our local tree farm …. trimming the tree while listening to Christmas music and drinking hot cocoa …. and Christmas eve mass .

    The holidays are a stressful time for parents and kids… keeping it simple is key !

    • These are just ideas and in no way am I advocating doing all of them.
      I know a lot of parents that get bogged down in making Advent Calendars 24 days of big and small gifts.
      Just wanted to provide some ideas for parents that were activity based alternatives.
      For us there will be a few mornings of chocolates, a few Brio figures for his train and ornaments for him to hang on the tree. Otherwise everything else we do is already on our calendar – a half dozen parties, concerts, events we have been invited to – and we’ll have a Christmas book at bed time or watch a Christmas themed movie. Christmas tree purchase will be one day with tree trimming the next.
      Your simple traditions sound lovely.
      And of course a little chocolate in the morning isn’t a bad thing! Your kids are older than mine (just turned 3) so those little chocolates are easily handled.

      • Another way we simplify the advent calendar activities is that we have one calendar for the two kids. Therefore it’s the same reilef from their chores or the same outing. They get a little chocolate each though in some of the packets. No arguments. We have one of those giant pixy advent calendars, so we use that each year. No arguments re what calendar to make either. …I try and opt for the easy life! :))

  • Here’s a way to make it simpler and non-cluttered: We have a wooden advent calendar that my mom gave me when my kids were babies. Each year I fill it with chocolate for them (we do advent calendar after dinner, so I never worried about sugar so much) and a slip of paper that has some kind of conversation starter on it. Some are questions (what’s the gift you’d most like to give this year?), and some are invitations to share (what’s your favorite Christmas carol?). You have to share to get the chocolate! The kids’ favorites are family appreciation days. Each person gets a day to be appreciated (when we each share something we appreciate about that person), and that person does get a little gift that day (usually a book or some small treat). My kids are now teens, but they love this.

  • I so agree with Michelle – I felt exhausted reading the list! As a mum of older children working full time and running a business, I have used a felt and fabric advent calendar of the nativity scene for years. I put three sugar coated chocolate drops in each pocket which also contains a star – one each for hubby and my girls. They also hang a star in the sky on the calendar. Simple and easy and I hope the calendar will be an heirloom.

  • Over nearly 30 years of being a mom of 3 girls, we did a lot of things. For quite a few years, I alternated between the Advent calendars with just a picture one year, and one with chocolate the next. Often the chocolate was pretty meh, and I decided to use an Advent calendar with small pockets and get small presents… this became overload at the latest by the time all three girls were getting hair ornaments, cute erasers and what have you and a little too “expected”, so I quit doing that. We went back to some more special “just picture” Advent calendars and in the alternating years, I thought up different stuff. One year it was a tray with 24 small tree candles, one for each day, and a Christmas story for the length of time it took to burn each evening. Then I found a great book by Jostein Gaarder (author of Sophie’s World) that is a Christmas story and we had a chapter each day until Christmas – that was very popular and my middle daughter eventually read it herself for Advent when she was older. I will be getting her the audio-CD now she is grown up and married…! Another book I found had a child’s Christmas craft for each day of Advent – I copied the pages individually and rolled them up like scrolls, one for each day and depending how many of the kids were around that day, we had a small crafting session.
    This year, I will be leaving my husband and 17 yr old youngest daughter during Advent because I need to go care for my mom and grandma abroad for a couple of weeks. I will be leaving the Advent calendar my mom gave us a few years ago with a small personal poem for each day (in 24 tiny drawers) and I will add a small chocolate or candy for each day, too, with a Lindt St. Nicholas for the 6th – I know they will appreciate this even though I am away. While I am with the older generation, I plan to do something Christmassy each day for them – bake some cinnamon stars, cut the carrot slices into stars, remind them to light a scented candle, use seasonal paper serviettes, hang up a few decorations, drink mulled wine, sprinkle a dessert with edible gold stars, help with writing the Christmas cards and use Christmas stamps on the envelopes, buy a poinsettia, sing carols or at least get them to listen to a concert or service on the radio… Everybody of any age (my grandma is 96) can enjoy Advent without going to a lot of trouble or expense and avoiding consumer stores or TV!

  • Some great ideas thanks. I’m going to use some of these as clutter-free stocking stuffer ideas.

    For our advent calender I create a list of nature play and craft ideas – totally clutter free and frugal.

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