Stephanie Van Belle, a new friend of mine on Facebook with a young family of four children, wrote her own Advent Calendar. I didn’t see the first posting of it at the beginning of December, but was thrilled last week to go through all the pictures she’d taken through the season as each of the activities were completed.

It’s not one of those open-a-window-everyday calendars while you gaze at a pretty Christmas scene or think about something written for that day. It’s an Advent Activity Calendar that calls on you to experience the spirit of generosity surrounding the Christmas season.

I copied it all down, but sharing Stephanie’s list exactly is not the same as creating activities that fit you, an individual, a family member – mom, dad or sibling, or a community member.

Stephanie’s idea grew out of her need to dig deeper into the meaning of Christmas – or Chanukah or whatever you celebrate, religious or otherwise. She felt the core value of the season was generosity and most of her activities ask her children to look outside themselves to teachers and office staff at school, to neighbors, to someone who may need a kind word or a thoughtful gesture, to community workers (they chose a station house of Flagstaff firefighters), and even to the environment to extend their generosity there (picking up trash in a favorite park and spending time in the park one afternoon).

I like that her first activity was attending a concert celebrating the season. In Flagstaff, Arizona where Stephanie and her young family live, there is a Nutcracker Lollipop Performance they attended. You can find a version of “The Nutcracker Suite,” whether in ballet or concert version, or a band or orchestra or choir performing seasonal music. It really starts the celebrating off with something that reaches into all our hearts and spirits in every language: music.

From there, they look for the neighbor with the nicest house decorations and leave an anonymous thank you card and candy canes, to teachers and helpers and making them gifts, to fellow classmates for whom they make simple gifts to give to all, to a child in need for whom they dig into their piggy banks and go to Goodwill or a dollar store and buy a gift and wrap for them, to choosing a child or more than just one who needs more love (like one or several in a hospital) and making them gifts and cards.

Another special element to Stephanie’s list is the inclusion of family traditions. Her husband Gerard is Dutch and they call the jolly bearded man Sinterklaas. One of the deeds they perform for Sinterklaas is to gather plain wooden clogs for each family member and decorate them colorfully and fill them with goodies, like a little wooden stocking. The children decorated these early in the month so they could gather his spirit into the house and be ready for his arrival.

Is your family from a country where they call Santa Claus something else? Did you have some activities you always included – maybe all sitting down together to address Christmas cards, or singing carols in the neighborhood, or donating time at a community center to serve meals or help others in need? Include that on your list, too. And create some new ones.

You don’t have to go to the store to buy this Advent Activity Calendar! It’s in your heart and your memories and in your own very special concept of what Christmas (or whatever you call it) really means to you. You can now make your own list and enjoy the activities yourself and you can share that with others, even friends and neighbors. Let them in on your creative fun.

Stephanie types up a list and numbers the days and activities, then she cuts the big piece of paper into separate strips so the exploits for the day are revealed when that day arrives.

I ended up having a very special Christmas season this year. I just changed my mind about it. It was much more about giving than receiving. While it is good to learn how to receive things with an open heart and mind, it is the best fun when you are the one giving, however small that gift may seem to you.

I thanked my liver doctor and her nurse this year because they have given so much and so willingly to me over the years. I still have thank-yous for my pharmacy team because they see me every week and go out of their way to help me. And then there is my oncologist who has listened to my tales of woe and my triumphs over the past year with great patience, along with his very special nurse practitioner. My internist and his staff deserve special thanks because he’s such an incredible and caring doctor, and he receives and answers emails from me on any topic in just a few hours. There are others, too, who deserve my special gratitude.

A very special thank you right now goes to my friend Adrienne Baker who introduced me to Stephanie. Those two have been friends for decades and truly love each other. So, thank you, Adrienne, for introducing and sharing your friend Stephanie Van Belle with me.

Who is special in your life all year long? Who does things for you that you take for granted or who you are grateful for when they aren’t around to thank? This is your special time to shine some light on that person and let them know you do notice, all year.

As an early reminder to you next year, I promise to re-post this blog after Thanksgiving next year so you can create and experience a new and custom-made holiday season for yourself, your loved ones, neighbors and community workers.

Have a wonderful year in 2013!

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