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25 holiday rituals you can do just about anywhere (free printable Advent calendar!)

paper chain hung on Christmas tree with post title

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Sharing family rituals is one of the best ways to make a new house feel like home. But during the holidays, it can be daunting if you are in a brand new location and especially if you’re away from family. It’s easy to get sucked into the trap of dwelling on what’s missing, rather than celebrating what you have.

Your family might be used to sledding snow-covered slopes, or spending afternoons baking cookies with Grandma. But instead the temperature’s 75 degrees and Grandma is 800 miles away.

stream surrounded by trees and snowy banks
When you’re used to Christmas looking like this…
desert yucca plant
…but your new reality is closer to this.

Instead of moping about it, you can start creating traditions for your family that won’t have to change the next time you move. These rituals (enough to fill a whole Advent calendar) can be done practically anywhere. Some of them might even become the things your family looks forward to the most in years to come. 

1. Make a paper chain to count down the days till the holiday.

Fortunately, I’ve included one here containing this entire list of ideas! (Scroll down to the bottom of this post for your free Advent calendar paper chain printable.) All you have to do is print, cut, choose your preferred order, and tape into a chain.

If you don’t have access to a printer, don’t let that stop you! The first year we did this, I let the kids make the paper chain out of construction paper. Then I wrote the activities onto our handy-dandy address labels and stuck them inside the links. You could also write activities directly on to the paper strips.

No matter how you do it, kids love discovering the surprise activities and seeing that chain get shorter each day until the holiday!

2. Listen to music.

I can’t think of a single holiday that isn’t made better by the right soundtrack. Some members of our family would listen to Christmas music all year long, but I draw the line that we celebrate Thanksgiving first. From Black Friday on, it’s fair game with holiday tunes blasting all the time. We listen to music while putting up the tree, baking, wrapping gifts, making cards, or any other of the many holiday activities filling this list.

I tend to gravitate towards albums that connect me with fond memories of Christmases past, but we always find new favorites as well. Typically our holiday soundtrack always includes Charlie Brown, Amy Grant, Sufjan Stevens, and Celtic-flavored carols. For Thanksgiving we like put on instrumentals with a bluegrass flavor, along with instrumental hymns.

3. Bless the hungry near you.

No matter where you are, there is likely a food pantry near you. It doesn’t take long to look them up and find out what donations they desperately need. Some years we do a food pantry advent, collecting one canned or boxed good each day. Other years it might be one box of assorted items. 

4. Bless the needy around the world.

One way is to shop for goats! My husband used to work for an organization called Samaritan’s Purse. They do a fantastic job of putting your donations where they can do the most good. Our family loves looking through their donation catalog every year to see what new and interesting ways they’ve come up with to help the people who need it most. You can donate goats, chickens, shares of a village well, and all kinds of other very real, very needed gifts!

5. Make greeting cards.

Kids love this, you can do it with whatever you have lying around the house, and it can easily fill a few hours or even a whole day. All you really need is a glue stick and some paper. You can even make your own envelopes from templates such as the ones at Greetings Island.

6. Hunt for candy canes (or other holiday treat).

Our kids look forward to this every year. Just like at Easter, you hide the candy canes all over the house, apartment, yard, or even a local park (it doesn’t take long!) Then the kids go hunting. Afterwards, each child can keep their candy canes or use them to decorate the tree. We like to use candy canes free of red dye such as these from Yum Earth brand or these from Whole Foods.

7. Learn ALL the words to a holiday song.

Maybe keep a running list and add 1-2 songs each year. Before long you’ll have quite the impressive caroling repertoire! Bonus points if you make a recording and send it to family members.

8. Read stories.

We actually made it through all of A Christmas Carol with our kids last year- what a milestone!  (a beautiful abridged version here) Other possibilities include The Family Under the Bridge, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, or whatever stories your family associates with the holiday season.

9. Watch movies reserved for the holidays.

For us those include It’s a Wonderful Life, Muppet Christmas Carol, White Christmas, Mickey’s Christmas Carol, and Klaus, though we’re always on the lookout for new favorites. 

10. Play holiday charades.

This free printable version has picture clues for the non-readers— our kids always look forward to this one! If charades isn’t your thing, pick something from this huge list of free holiday games.

11. Fill the house with holiday scents.

You can order candles, bake something with vanilla. or just stick some cinnamon sticks and orange peels in a pot of water on the stove.

12. Make an ornament from whatever you have.

There are some amazing ornaments that can be made with just paper, scissors and glue. These are some of our favorites— and even little ones can get in on the fun by jazzing them up with markers or glitter glue. Saving paper ornaments doesn’t take up much room, but if space is at a premium (or your decorations are in storage or transit!), they won’t be hard to re-make another year.

13. Prepare a performance of a favorite holiday story.

This could be in the form of a play, a puppet show (you can make a paper puppet show with just construction paper, skewers/sticks, and a cardboard box stage!), or just acting out the story with toys. Make a video of the performance and share it with family members.

14. Compile a “Best of the Year” list.

Ask each child their favorite thing about the past year, and put all the responses on a list marked with the current year. This would be a great addition to a scrapbook or holiday letter.

15. Invite someone to share a holiday meal (or other experience) with your family.

This is a big deal in military towns, where many single soldiers might be alone for the holidays. Ask around your community, and you might be surprised who takes you up on the offer!

16. Decorate a window or mirror for the holidays.

Some ideas are paper snowflakes, gel clings, reusable stickers, even dry- or wet-erase markers. 

17. Go through old toys and clothes and donate what’s no longer used.

If kids are hesitant, remind them they’re making room for upcoming gifts!

18. Watch the Nutcracker.

If you want, make an evening of it. Have everyone dress up if they so choose- make it as fancy or as casual as you like! We did this during the 2020 lockdown, and it resulted in a great family dress-up photo—even though we never left the house!

19. Choose photos for an album or card.

Speaking of photos….this is a great time to go through photos from the year and have kids help pick out their favorites. Print them out for a photo album, upload them to an online album and share link with family, or have them made into a book.

20. Feed the birds (even if it’s not cold).

21. Build things out of food.

Make a gingerbread house or cinnamon dough ornaments (don’t feel like you have to do both!) If that’s too much work, make houses out of graham crackers and frosting—or for an even simpler food craft, build snowmen out of marshmallows and toothpicks.

22. Make a playset for your holiday story out of whatever materials you can find.

We plan to carve a Nativity out of soap this year….I’ll let you know how it goes.

23. Read—-and even write! a holiday poem.

When we last read the poetry compilation Manger (themed around what animals may have spoken to Baby Jesus the night he was born) to our children, it inspired them to come up with poems for additional animals and their Christmas offerings. So sweet!

24. Share a moment of hygge.

Make a festive drink: apple cider, friendship tea, hot cocoa, or our new favorite, vegan eggnog. Turn on a virtual fireplace (or a real one if you’ve got it!) and cozy up under some blankets. Read a book together, share stories, or just enjoy being close for a few minutes…until the sugar kicks in and the kids start bouncing off the walls (wait, is that just us?) Then go play hide and seek :)

25. Read the origin story of the holiday.

Leave room for questions, and don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers.

If you liked this list, don’t forget to download your FREE printable Advent calendar paper chain. Though our list is geared toward the Christmas holiday, you could easily adapt this printable to any holiday tradition. There is even a blank section where you can write in your own activities to add to the chain. 

Making the chain is easy no matter what printer you have. Either set your printer to double-sided printing, or print all the odd pages then stick them back in and print the even ones to get the patterned background. Then just cut and tape! 

The links are un-numbered, so you can put the activities in whatever order you wish. Feel free to write numbers on the outside to help your children keep track of the days.

Download your free printable here:

Happy Holidays!

What are some of your favorite holiday traditions that aren’t location-dependent? Tell me about them in the comments! 

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