The Advent Calendar

This week, as we explore the idea of “Change of Plans,” I wanted to talk about how we can choose to change the tone of our engagement when things get hard (and for most of us, there is at least one moment when things will get hard). So today, Emily is here, talking about one of the more lovely ideas I’ve heard of: the Engagement Advent Calendar. I grew up religious and Protestant, so this line hit me hard, “Like Advent, an engagement is a time for hope and preparation.” Within the religious calendar, Advent isn’t just a time to get ready to open presents. It’s time to emotionally prepare yourself for hope (and preparing for hope is one of my hardest spiritual practices, if we’re being honest). I love the idea of applying that to the last months, or weeks, of engagement. It’s not just about getting ready for the party, it’s about emotional preparation and hope for what is to come: a life together.

I always loved Advent calendars at Christmas when I was young.

For as far back as I could remember my mom always bought me one from church each November. They were small, flat, cardboard boxes and each day in the month of December I would peel back the little perforated doors to find chocolate inside. CHOCOLATE! Waiting for Christmas was exciting enough, but then in those last few days I got rewarded for my patience with tiny cocoa confections. Then, at the end of all this chocolate came presents. Could it get much better?

I’ve been engaged now for over two years. It has been kind of like waiting for Christmas as a child—it seems like that wonderful day will never come.

We moved our lives from Michigan to New York City five months after our engagement so that my fiancé Andrew could pursue a master’s degree, which he will receive just a few short weeks before the wedding. Most of our first year of engagement was spent getting our lives in order in a completely foreign atmosphere. We had most of the “big” things (the dress, the reception venue, the church, catering, and photographer) figured out by the one-year mark. With all this time on my hands, I became lazy, and put off making any more decisions. I dreamed a lot, and wasted entire weekends staring at wedding blogs, but I didn’t actually accomplish anything.

Then, exactly six months from the wedding date, I had my “oh sh*t, I actually have to plan this” moment and went insane.

Ok, it didn’t happen quite that swiftly or thoroughly, but I did spend a lot of time in front of the computer, furiously scrolling through internet searches for the perfect this or that. There was this one night my vision went completely blurry after a five-hour Etsy bender, and I had to lie down to regain my sight.

I now had to try to cram wedding planning into my already jam-packed life with a full-time job, acting gigs on the side, two cats to take care of, and a fiancé whose equally stressful, full schedule allowed him little time to help. I also ran into some difficulty with my mom, who manifested her struggle of giving up her little girl into harsh criticism about my wedding choices. I was simultaneously commanded by my family to be as budget-conscious as possible while not leaving out any of the “traditional” wedding indulgences (even the ones we don’t care a lick about). I found myself completely emotionally wrecked every single day for several months. The overwhelming stress put quite a strain on my relationship with Andrew.

Early in the year, during a moment of particular sanity, I realized the serious importance of the last few months of our engagement. Like Advent, an engagement is a time for hope and preparation. And I don’t mean preparations like shopping and decorating. It’s the time to emotionally prepare yourself to commit fully to your partner. It is a step that is too often overlooked by brides pulling out their hair over insignificant choices.

I decided to make a Wedding Advent Calendar.

It was decided that the countdown would start at 150 days and we hit the craft store and purchased a few packages of corkboard squares and pushpins. I had originally intended on just buying pretty construction paper, a nice, simple idea that would have taken an afternoon to complete. Instead, I decided to design the whole thing on the computer and print it out to hang on the corkboards. Bad call. This is one of those projects that really calls for simplicity. I didn’t even finish the damn thing until we were 50 days into the countdown.

Andrew expressed his desire to help with the designing, but my controlling side had taken over at this point, and I flat out told him “no.” I finished the calendar myself. (NOTE: The lesson learned here directly correlates with Meg’s idea of DIT. When I realized how wrong and petty I was to control the whole project, it made me take a hard look at where else I might have been too controlling in the wedding plans, and I’ve been making a concerted effort to dial it back.)

Certainly, the calendar looks pretty cute on the wall, and the little pictures and designs I chose make me smile, but this is not why the project has been worthwhile. The surprise—the chocolate, if you will—is on the back of each day of the countdown, where we have written each other little love notes. They include favorite memories, inside jokes, or just plain nice thoughts about one another. I wrote messages on the even days of the countdown, and Andrew wrote messages on the odd days. Each night, we flip over the little paper rectangle and whoever did not write that night gets to read what the other has written. We go to bed after each long day, no matter how stressful, or boring, or painful it might have been, with a little reminder of how much we love one another, and why we are putting ourselves through the torture that is wedding planning. In the end, we’re going to be married to each other and that is pretty amazing.

We’ve been doing this now for eighty days, and we have seventy more to go. It has proved to be like therapy for us, and far and away the best project I’ve made in the whole engagement. Having these reminders of our love has brought me back down to earth after several wedding panic attacks. It has brought a calm, serene look to Andrew’s face, even after some giant freak-outs about his final school project and from trepidation about what lies ahead post-graduation. I’m beginning to find my Wedding Zen, and my problems with my mom have been generally resolved, but we still have a long way to go before walking down that aisle, and I believe the kind words we are choosing to share will help us keep our feet on the ground and our focus on the marriage ahead.

I urge any brides-to-be to consider taking some time out of their planning to make an Advent calendar of their own. Maybe it’s not quite as intricate as mine (in fact, I strongly suggest you err on the side of simplicity, and it doesn’t have to be as long either). Maybe it’s a wall calendar with sticky notes over each day, or maybe it’s just pieces of notebook paper taped to the fridge. Perhaps it is not a physical thing at all and you just commit to say one nice thing to each other every night before you go to sleep. What is important is remembering during this crazy, topsy-turvy, emotional, sometimes painful, and usually stressful time why you are getting married. Don’t skip a day (we’ve done this a few times, and even skipped a whole week when we were out of town). Even during—no, especially during—a fight, do not skip a day. Commit to showing your love for one another, even when it’s hard. When you’ve spent an entire day crying over envelope colors or handmade napkin rings, when the pressure becomes insurmountable, or when you’ve been screaming your heads off at each other, you can’t imagine the clarity you’ll feel taking just one small, sweet moment to remember your love for one another.

Photo Credit: Emily’s Instagram!

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  • This is GENIUS. I remember in my wedding graduate post writing something like, “I hadn’t factored in any time for reflection, because reflection was not on The List”. So props to you for recognising this in advance, and putting it on The List.

    Also, it looks beautiful. Maybe not worth-having-a mental-breakdown-over beautiful, but beautiful nonetheless, and something you can treasure and keep long after the crazy wedding time is over.

    • Kristy

      I love this post- excellent work! And I love what Kirsty said – “reflection was not on The List.” I have been incredibly surprise by how emotional I’ve been about the significance of the change to being husband and wife. Somehow I thought this wedding planning stuff would be all about pretty dresses and picking music. It’s been wonderful- but more internal than I anticipated.

      We’re sooo getting an Advent Calendar. Especially since our wedding is ten days before Christmas. Great idea!

    • meg

      Someone needs to make an Etsy version of this (APW stationary sponsors???) so you can just BUY it, and use it without the stress. I actually think it would be brillant for all sorts of life changes, wedding, baby, moving, whatever. A really nice way to reflect and spend time TOGETHER, instead of getting all focused on the STUFF and the DOING that everyone puts focus on.

      • Emily

        Oh. My. God. Meg. I am actually leaving my FT job before the wedding. Andrew is graduating, and we decided I get to spend time actually trying to act in NYC (another blog post in and of itself…) and I’ve been thinking about what the hell I’m going to do to make money… you may have just found me a new day job…

        • I would totally buy that from etsy! BRILLIANCE!!!!! It works for babies, jobs, travel, big moves, really all of life’s adventures!

          I’d make it, too, but I bet I’d be happier to just use it, enjoy it, and spend my time reflecting rather than stressing over another project.

          • AliceMay

            Or, even better, you could get a German style fabric one (with pockets for each day, in which you could simply put little notes). That way you could have the *same* one for many life events

        • meg


      • Maddie

        You could call it an ADVENTure calendar. :)

        • holy shit! YES! I just had an impromptu desk-dance party over this comment.

      • Oh yes. We need products that help you think about the relationship and the marriage first, instead of distracting you with a list of ‘100 things to have ready by 6 months.’ And it helps if they are pretty.

        But also this would be a great bridesmaid project to take on board I think.

  • Absolutely amazing! What a lovely idea. I actually got married right at the end of Advent, and it was a happy coincidence when I realized that Advent meant extra to me last year because of the preparation for our wedding. Those little reminders of hope really do make a big difference.

    I did something smaller but similar, not for the wedding, but when I took a 3 month contract job in another state. My then-boyfriend, now-husband was anxious about me being gone so long, even though he was going to come visit right in the middle. So I made him a paper chain. For every day I was gone, I wrote one little thing about our relationship or that I loved about him (or occasionally a reminder about how soon he’d be coming to see me). I presented the chain to him on the morning I left, and he really did use it every single day I was gone. It was fun to be on the other end of the phone as he shared all the little bits on each ring.

    Thanks so much for sharing! What a beautiful, bright spot in the morning.

    • This is a good suggestion of adapting this same concept… My husband has a good amount of travelling coming up, so I think I might try this for a long stretch that’s scheduled.

      Though probably not as a chain, since that would be hard to get in a suitcase over and over. :)

      • Try a stack of index cards held together with a rubber band or something. That would pack real well.

        • That’s a good idea!

        • yes, index cards! That’s what I did for the first birthday of his we celebrated together. He turned 26, so I wrote one thing I liked about him on each of 26 postcards.

    • Emily

      A paper chain was my very first idea! It has been so much fun sharing the little memories we’ve chosen to share with each other, and a lot of nights, whatever we wrote has lead to long trips down memory lane and/or lots of giggles, smiles, and kisses.

    • Lturtle

      One of my friends uses the paper chain thing regularly. Her husband travels for work, sometimes for months in one go, and pulling a link off the chain every day is a good way for her kids to visualize when daddy is coming home. Also, it looks pretty when it’s draped around the living room.

  • Ceebee

    This is spot on for me.
    my struggle with mental health, which went on for years noticed but unattended, turned me so knotted and gutted. When it came to finally involved therapy and meds, I seem to go nowhere until … One day God found me…then I started to calm down.
    But it was not until I started remembering and sharing these unbelievably happy experiences I had with him that the color started to return to my face and my smile started to form again the first time in years.

  • Amy March

    This is so cute!

  • SO. COOL. That is such a beautiful way to make sure the marriage prep doesn’t get lost in all the wedding prep!

  • I absolutely love this, and I think I’m going to do this :D

  • PA

    Amazing idea! I really want to make one, although I *did* just make a panicked face at the thought of trying to fit that in with moving, remodeling, and unpacking. Maybe I’ll write countown days on the approximately eight hundred paint chips we have floating arround … ?

    This was a wonderful read, thank you so much for sharing! Good luck as you naviate through dealing with family!

  • carrie

    I LOVE THIS SO MUCH. Sorry for the shouty caps, but this is such a wonderful idea. And man alive, is it beautiful.

    On Pinterest, I saw a Sunday-Saturday giant pill box that you fill with notes to your loved one when you’re away on a trip or something. I loved this idea, and I’m thinking of it now since I’m already married. We also have started the tradition of getting or using some sort of receptacle (this year it’s a box that looks like a book) and filling it with our favorite memories throughout the year. So we can go back and say, hey, remember when we did/saw X in 2012?

    • As much as I love the idea of an Engagement/Advent Calendar (and Emily – I too would totally buy one!!), this idea resonates within me, too.

      I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate the day to day with my beloved than secretely recording on pretty scraps of paper moments in time that can be cherished and remembered weeks/months/years later.

  • Victwa

    This. Was. Awesome.

    Incorporating into life/wedding planning. Definitely.

  • “When I realized how wrong and petty I was to control the whole project, it made me take a hard look at where else I might have been too controlling in the wedding plans…” and if this were me, I’d say also, ‘and other aspects of my life…’


    This is a pretty awesome way to build up to a pretty awesome day… and life together. I think something so tangible and hopeful sets the tangible foundations for a sustaining marriage… not just wedding. Like, if you can still sit down and love the person your with after a crappy day with a) napkin colors, b) BM drama, c) family woes or D) other, then you’ve set yourself up to be able to do the same thing, even when the SHTF five, ten, fifty years later.

  • One More Sara

    This is a full-on double rainbow of wedding/marriage awesome!!! Our wedding isn’t until next summer, and we are long-distance planning. This is actually something tangible I can start working on now (and something that can travel!). By our Wedding Advent, my bf and I will have likely forgotten everything that we had written, and the message can be a surprise for both of us. Can’t wait to get started!

  • This is an incredible idea and the post actually made me get a little teary. I love that you were so intentional in the days leading up to your wedding date. I will be adapting this for some future use in our marriage. :)

  • I absolutely love this.

  • This is just too brilliant. You’ve taken the idea of reflection leading up the wedding and actually given it a physical form. I’m definitely going to consider something along these lines as the lead up to my wedding :D

  • CAMinSD

    Sign from the Universe No. 364 that one might need a project like this: Crying at work reading about a project like this.

  • Gloria

    i’m sooooo stealing this. it’s a brilliant idea.

  • Holy wow. I can’t think of anything better both building anticipation, keeping aware of timelines, and staying connected and grateful for each other in such a stressful time. Thank you for sharing!

    File under: Things That Would Have Helped When I Was Planning

  • KateM

    We are one week shy of the one month mark, I am absolutely going home tonight and making this. I love the analogy between Advent and Engagement, how perfect, a time of celebratory anticipation, and just like trying to keep the meaning of Christmas in perspective through all the craziness that is December, trying to keep the marriage part in perspective leading up to the wedding. And what an amazing keepsake to have! Love!

  • lmba

    Um, pretty sure I just figured out what I am going to hack for a 2nd anniversary gift this year!!!! Thanks Emily!

  • “Commit to showing your love for one another, even when it’s hard.”

    That! Preparing for marriage, what the engagement is supposed to be (preparing for a marriage not a wedding), is that.

    The day we got engaged I went out and bought a pocket-sized notebook. We got engaged on the Summer solstice and we were married by the winter solstice. Every few days I pulled it out and wrote down something that happened that day that we did that was fun, that he said that made me smile, that I wanted to remember about our engagement and that made it clear to me that we needed to get married. I originally was writing the book for me as a reminder for me. But after awhile I realized I was writing the book for him, so he’d remember all the small things he might have thought were insignificant but that meant so much to me. And I gave him the book for his first birthday after we got married. We still pull it out every so often just to flip through it and remember.

  • suzanna

    What a lovely, sane, useful, beautiful and inspiring idea! Thank you!

    Also: “There was this one night my vision went completely blurry after a five-hour Etsy bender, and I had to lie down to regain my sight.”

    I’ve given this behavior in myself the title Wedding Fever.

  • MDBethann

    This is incredibly awesome. We never did the ones with candy or gifts growing up, but ones with some sort of thought for the day or a Bible verse. I still use it for Advent now. I don’t have loads of time to make one, but I think I’m going to put the lyrics from some of the songs we’re having at the wedding down for each day.

    Thanks for the idea!!!

    • Emily

      Love that idea!

  • Hazel

    This is a great idea, I’m making one right now with sweet wrappers that I knew I was saving for something ;) lovely to have something wedding related that’s a little bit different!

  • My bridesmaids made me a wedding advent before the day itself. They were all spread out across continents and passed this little red book between them, and filled it with wedding thoughts, questions to think about, poems, drawings, wisdom….anything. Then I had, for about 2 months before my wedding,a designated space to think and reflect about what was happening. It was actually nice to have that space that was just for me, although I love the idea of doing a couple advent calender too. It was a way of preparing myself for what was to come and also how far I’d come myself, with a little help of the wise words of my far away girl friends. So any bridesmaids on here feel free to steal that idea, it wasn’t mine anyway!

  • Viv

    17 days to go for us…. I got a little panicy last night and said to my BF ‘say something nice to me to make me feel better’ I knew that was the only thing that would help, he did, and it helped. Im going to cut up some bits of paper now and were going to start this tonight. Such a good idea!

  • Omg. I was poring over advent calendar ideas that I wanted to do last year. this is so beautiful. sent it to an engaged friend right away. :)

  • LOVE this idea!

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  • Love this!
    My partner and I both have christian backgrounds and we already make mini advent calendars for each other when one of us has to travel without the other.

    We are for sure going to make an engagement one, and it also reminds me how fun they are for all kinds of celebrations.

    I love the cloth pocket idea and I want to give engagement calendars as gifts to couples we know who are planning weddings!

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