Instead of tucking into chocolate each day in December, there’s a way to enjoy advent calendars while helping others - and it won’t rot your teeth.
People around the world are making ‘reverse advent calendars’, which involve filling a box with a useful item each day, then giving it to someone in need on Christmas Eve.
The idea was the brainchild of Canadian Julie Van Rosendaal, who appealed for donations for her local food bank in place of calendars in November 2015. But the concept truly took off in the UK a month later, when South Shields resident Louise Scott pledged to donate a calendar to her local homeless shelter.
Since then, numerous charities as well as a collection of bloggers have launched their own versions of the initiative.
National charity Changing Lives is collecting calendars this year after its staff spotted the trend online. The charity runs projects dedicated to helping vulnerable people in the community, ranging from domestic violence survivors and sex workers to people recovering from addiction and those struggling to access mental health services.
“We thought this was a lovely, communal way for people to collect and donate to people in need,” communications manager Libby Marks tells HuffPost UK.
“It also gives people a sense of purpose during stressful Christmas trips to the shops, to know they have some small affordable items they can pick up to bring cheer to people in genuine need.
“The reverse advent calendars are small acts of kindness that add up to a massive difference for vulnerable people.”
Meanwhile Buckinghamshire-based One Can is one of many food banks taking part in the initiative. This will be the charity’s second year of collecting calendars after they proved to be a roaring success in 2016.
“Last year, on Christmas Eve morning when we opened the food bank store, we had no idea how many people would come,” marketing and communications volunteer Heather Stanley tells HuffPost UK.
“Over 250 families and individuals arrived with their calendars. Many happy tears were shed by us at the project.”
Heather says the calendars can connect the community and help those struggling to feel less isolated.
“It is such a stressful time of year, with kids not in school so not getting their free meals, and with such innocent joy and expectation of a lush Christmas tea and presents galore, parents can often feel like they are letting their own kids down,” she says.
“Our clients tell us that knowing people are thinking of those less fortunate than themselves at Christmas really encourages them.”
According to Heather, giving an advent calendar can also help remind your family about the true meaning of Christmas.
“Families brought their children along to the food bank on Christmas Eve and we got to talk about a different thing we can do at Christmas - sharing love,” she says.
“So we know it makes a huge difference to those receiving the parcels, but also to those giving.”
How to make a reverse advent calendar:
Heather says while food banks are “grateful for every donation”, One Can has created a list of certain items they’re always short of that go into the emergency food parcels.
:: Pasta sauce
:: Coffee/hot chocolate
:: Long-life milk
:: Toothbrushes and paste
The charity will be posting a prompt on social media every day to inspire people, such as “December 1st: rice.”
“At Christmas, people like to pop in extras like mince pies and Christmas puds and that’s absolutely wonderful,” Heather adds.
“If people can’t pop a food or household item in each day, a pound coin is also most welcome as it helps us run the project.”
Meanwhile Changing Lives is primarily asking people to donate items that will be of use to the people who live in its accommodation projects.
:: Unopened toiletries
:: Warm clothes for winter
:: Items to make rooms feel more homely
“People often arrive at our accommodation with very little,” Libby explains.
“As we work with a lot of women, we also ask for sanitary items because these can be a big expense for women experiencing hardship. We pop them into bedrooms and bathrooms to save women the embarrassment of asking for them.”
Changing Lives also runs a crèche in Doncaster and several of its nationwide projects are aimed at supporting families with young children, so toys can be a great addition to your box.
“We ask people to not include food, alcohol or any toy weapons,” Libby says.
While One Can are open on Christmas Eve to collect boxes, Changing Lives are asking for all donations by 15 December.
Ask staff at your local charity what items they are in need of for more box inspiration.