Season of Surprises


My kids love surprises like a bear loves blueberries.

It doesn’t really matter how big or small the surprise is, they’ll sniff it out and filled with glee, move into that “blueberry patch” until every last ounce of chocolate, stickers, movies, or whatever the surprise may be, has been scarfed down, chewed, and digested. Then, eyes still sparkling, lips stained, they’ll turn to me looking for more. It’s equal parts exhilarating and exhausting, so most times of the year, I spread out surprises. We have surprise trips to the beach, new socks, picnics in the park, and cremees, all spaced out neatly around the birthday calendar.

I want them to learn that berries and surprises are all the sweeter for enjoying them just some of the time.

But come December, when the days grow short and the cold begins to seep into my bones, I have found my preference for moderation expires. Winter is coming, and it is an imperative that my little bear clan eat its fill of surprises if we are to survive these dark dark days. There’s just something about it getting dark at 4 o’clock in the afternoon that makes everything terrible, so I embrace all surprises big and small to keep us somewhat civil with one another.

Over the years I have found a couple of tricks to keep me from turning into a crazed mama bear trying to plan all this fun: an Advent calendar and the Elf on the Shelf. I know neither of these are new traditions, but if you’ll forgive the mom-splaining I’ll share how we use both to make the season fun without losing our ever-loving minds in the process.

The Advent CalendarOu

We’ve always wanted the emphasis to be on the season and not a single day dedicated to ripping apart wrapping paper for 15 minutes. Filling each day with surprises big and small leading up to Christmas makes the whole month more enjoyable for us all. Every morning then, the kids wake up excited about reading the little slip of paper telling them what the day’s surprise is, and we can’t help but get caught up in their excitement.

The first thing to remember about planning an events-oriented Advent calendar vs. a gift or chocolaty one (though those are cool too, right?) is that it is a calendar. Get it? We all have calendars to organize our lives and this is just a fancier version with cute little pockets. There is NOTHING I put in the calendar that I wouldn’t be trying to squeeze into the month already as part of enjoying the season. When November 30th hits, my husband and I just start scribbling down all the things we ordinarily would be thinking of doing this month on the little bits of paper and arrange them on the Advent calendar around our other professional and life commitments.  

We start with the bigger items like “pick out a Christmas tree” and work around them with lots of little items like “make a card.” Anything that requires more time or effort is typically relegated to a Saturday or Sunday, with weeknights reserved for smaller activities that we can do with the kids before bed (e.g. read a Christmas story) or supervise from a reclined position on the couch post-dinner with a glass of wine (e.g. “How’s that paper snowflake coming along?”).

Most of what we include is free or inexpensive, like a walk around the block to look at holiday lights, making Christmas cookies, singing carols, etc.. We do, however, try to buy one experience for them a year. In previous years, we’ve taken them to the Nutcracker, ridden the Polar Express, and enjoyed a Christmas play. This year the plan is to take them to see The Magic Flute performed live in HD from The Met Opera. These larger ticket items may mean one or two fewer presents under the tree, but if that’s one less thing we have to find room for in the house, and one less toy they need to be reminded to pick up, that’s a good thing in my book.  

We also include some holiday giving in the mix of activities. One day the girls go shopping for a gift to give each other. I hope I’m supporting a lifelong habit of thinking about the wants or desires of someone else, but I’ve discovered they need some coaching here. As in: “Do you think your sister will really like that mood ring, or is it just something you like and want for yourself?”

The girls also pick a charity each year to donate to from their allowance money with my husband and I matching their amount (something I stole from VPR pledge drives!). This is one of my favorite activities on the calendar as we have some of the best conversations each year thinking about the why’s and how’s of charitable gift giving. Last year we donated money via Oxfam towards a deworming initiative for kids across the globe. We watched videos, debated the merits of the organization over others, and in general learned a lot as a family. At my daughter Nell’s suggestion, we also gave to a local organization working in our own community.  In this way, I think the Advent calendar helps us focus our energy on the parts of the season we value and allows us to ignore anything that doesn’t resonate with where we are as a family this year.

Elf on the Shelf

IMG_20141223_215338812All of this leads me to our Elf on the Shelf, Nola. I’ve heard rumors that some kids’ elves start showing up on Thanksgiving, and I gotta tell you the best thing we ever did was wait till December 10th or so to have our elf report for duty. (I just tell the kids she’s directionally challenged and got lost on the way and they accept that without comment. Their dad too can’t find his way out of a parking garage). Typically Nola appears one day when we’re stuck for anything good on the Advent calendar. The little slip of paper just directs to the girls to “go on an elf hunt.” Typically this involves hunting the house for at least an hour while we cook dinner in order to find Nola curled up with a bag of holiday M&M’s, in the Christmas lights, wrapped up in gift wrap, whatever. From then on, Nola makes an appearance each morning until Christmas Day when she hitches a ride back to the North Pole with the big guy.

In recent years, there’s been a bit of a backlash against the elf for some good reasons, I think. My husband and I dig our elf though because the only thing Nola does at our house is get into plain old silly fun: she breaks into the cookie jar, she celebrates the solstice by putting sun stickers on everything in the fridge, she has tea parties with the other toys, and, my mother-in-law’s personal favorite, she likes to TP the Christmas tree. The girls love the surprise of seeing what new shenanigans their elf gets into each morning and my husband and I like that we watch a little less tv at this time of year because we’re too busy plotting what will elicit the biggest giggles or the most hurried of footsteps to wake us in the morning to report on Nola’s nocturnal mischief.

We feel none of the Internet’s hysteria or mom guilt about our elf’s activities. Maybe it’s because Nola is not much of a Santa spy, like she is at other people’s house. Nor does she make enormous messes that we have to clean up (Um… do I need to comment on that one?). All she does is look for something silly to do in the 10 minutes before we go to bed. Maybe we should all just repeat, “I am the boss of the elf; the elf is not the boss of me,” until we feel better…? Nola’s magic is not in making my kids behave any better, her power rests solely in her ability to surprise my kids, and I am thankful for that.

To be honest, I know that in the years to come, it’ll get harder and harder to surprise my girls. There will come a time when they’ll prefer the company of their friends and the surprises of the wider world to my own home-grown gifts of the unexpected. As the girls grow up, I know they’ll tire of the Advent calendar and their elf. They’ll still enjoy the holidays, I imagine, even as these family traditions end and we’ll just be left with the warm memories of their childish delight in them. But maybe not. Maybe they’ll surprise me.     

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Mary Beth McNulty
Mary Beth is a Southern transplant to Vermont by way of California, where she taught middle school. These days, you can find Mary Beth still working in education with a local college and as a playwright with the Burlington-based, Complications Company. She likes to write about things that make her laugh, like how her eldest sometimes channels a 50-year-old British man when she speaks; everyday tragedies, like being the only person in the house who seems to know how to change a toilet paper roll; and things that keep her up late at night, like climate change, school shootings, pandemics, and if she remembered to pay her car registration or not. She is a co-founder of Complications Company.


  1. I think your girls will always appreciate your time and sense of family and tradition. I predict they will do the same traditions with their own families someday!


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