Homemade Cryptic Advent Calendars!

One of our most treasured Christmas traditions is the homemade cryptic Advent calendar. It requires a little bit of planning, but the Beans absolutely love it; Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without it!

Every year, I pull out our trusty tree-shaped reusable Advent calendar that I found in a charity shop and fill it with the obligatory chocolate along with a cryptic clue for each day. In the past, I’ve used all sorts of clue types ranging from morse code to substitution ciphers to messages in Spanish (see this post for more information).

Once deciphered, the clue leads the children to a hiding place somewhere in the house concealing a note with a simple Christmas-themed activity to do together along with a random act of kindness.

From 2018 – they look so little!

This year, given their passion for the Victorian study we’re in the midst of, I’ve decided to do a Victorian-themed Advent calendar for them, which I know they’ll adore!

And, to spread the love of this cherished tradition, the Beans decided back in October to each sew a reusable Advent calendar for their younger cousins – one for each family – and to fill its pockets with daily puzzles leading the children to chocolate coins hidden around the house! Each weekend they’ve worked on their calendars, sitting at the sewing machine or sharing ideas for clues. Finally, they’re ready and have been packaged up and sent off to their lucky recipients.

In case this is a project your family would be interested in doing, I’ll share below the detail of the Beans’ homemade Advent calendars for their cousins and our own Victorian Advent plans.

Cousins’ Advent Calendar Project

After ordering them some green felt, I left the Beans entirely to their own devices with this project.

They both cut out large tree shaped designs, and Bean10 used more of the same fabric to cut out 24 little pockets which he sewed into place. He then added a lovely holly bauble at the top, above which he made a hole to thread some ribbon for hanging the calendar, and then attacked it with the fabric paint to number the pockets and add some colour (it was his first time using these fabric paints – we should probably have done a trial run!).

Bean11 opted for carefully cutting out the perfect section of a variety of Christmas fabrics she already had in her sewing box, with an extra-large pocket for the 24th. She laid them out on the tree and sewed them into position, adding a bauble at the top and some thin lines of tinsel (although these are hard to see on the picture).

The clues they came up with were super cute. The cousins range in age from 1 to 7, so the clues needed to be quite simple. Each clue will lead them to a different part of their house, where the Beans’ auntie or uncle has agreed to hide a chocolate coin for each of them to find as treasure!

They used eight different types of code:

  1. Simple substitution ciphers, where a = 1, b = 2 etc. For example: 21, 14, 4, 5, 18 / 25, 15, 21, 18 / 2, 5, 4 equates to UNDER YOUR BED
  2. Slide codes, where you slide back one letter along the alphabet, so a = z, b = a, c = b etc. For example: PO / B / DIBJS equates to ON A CHAIR
  3. Backwards codes, where the words are written backwards.
  4. Anagrams
  5. Missing letters puzzles
  6. Simple riddles, such as this one:

7. Maths puzzles, in which the number answer to each correctly solved maths question correlates with a particular letter, which, when all put together, spells out a clue. For example, the maths puzzles in the picture below ultimately spell out “In your bath”:

8. And finally, for one family, there were some simple clues in Spanish as the Beans’ auntie is fluent in the language and is teaching her children.

Once they’d finished and checked their 24 puzzles, they slipped them inside the pockets and sent them off with an explanatory letter. I wish I was a fly on the wall when they receive their packages – knowing my nieces and nephews, their eyes will be wide with excitement!

Our 2020 Victorian Advent Calendar

Although older, the Beans are most certainly not up for stopping our traditional daily Advent puzzles. Having a slightly more grown-up version with a Victorian focus, will I think fit the bill perfectly for them this year.

The Chocolates

Firstly, to the chocolates! Historically, I’ve slipped two chocolate coins into each pocket alongside the clue to find their Christmas-themed activity and act of kindness for the day. This year, as the first ever boxes of chocolates were manufactured in the Victorian era, I’ve decided to treat them to two such boxes from which to select a chocolate each daily. Simple pleasures and all that!

The Clues

Alongside the chocolate, each day the Beans will get a clue to solve which will lead them to the hiding place of a card telling them what their fun Christmas activity is for the day. This year all of these clues will be based around questions on the Victorians, split into three main types:

  1. Part of the answer to the question is a clue to the hiding place, for example:

Which famous Victorian engineer designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge? Use the last part of his first name to finish this clue:

IN A BOOK BY THE _ _ _ _ (Answer: Isambard Kingdom Brunel, so it will be hidden in one of Shakespeare’s books that we have).

2. The answer to the question is the hiding place, for example:

Find this in a place which if we lived in Victorian times would house products containing a lot of arsenic! (Answer: the medicine cabinet – many of the Victorian medicines on general sale contained arsenic!!).

3. Matching numbers and letters to spell out a hiding space, for example:

Link the numerical answers to the following questions to their corresponding letter of the alphabet. They will spell out a location of the next hiding spot:

a) Florence Nightingale and her team of nurses reduced the death rate in the Crimean hospitals from 42% to what percentage?

b) How many sisters did Florence Nightingale have?

c) How old was Albert when he married Victoria?

(Answers: a) 2%, b) 1, c) 20 equating to the letters B-A-T, so the card will be hidden by Bean10’s cricket bat).

NB: I suspect the Beans will know most of the answers given our studies, but for those they can’t remember, they can refer back to the books we’ve been reading about the topic.

Here’s a picture of our full list of clues:

The Activities

Each of the clues above will lead them to a place in the house where is hidden a piece of card with their Christmas-themed activity for the day.

The majority although not all, because who can resist the joy of snuggling up and watching a Christmas film together, will be Victorian themed. Many of these ideas have come from the BBC’s Victorian Farm Christmas series – on this page is a whole selection of ideas for Victorian crafts, decorations, food and drink, gifts and games.

Here’s the list of activities we’ve opted to do together this year:

Dec 1st: Gather holly, other greenery and cones from the woods, use red ribbon to add some colour and decorate the mantelpiece, stairs and your rooms.

Dec 2nd: Make Victorian holly berries using red wax and peas!

Dec 3rd: Make Victorian cornucopia Christmas decorations for the tree and fill with chocolates!

Dec 4th:  Make orange pomander and cinnamon stick decorations for the tree.

Dec 5th: Select a Christmas tree from the farm, decorate it and arrange the Nativity set.

Dec 6th: Make a Victorian Advent wreath.

Dec 7th: Play Christmas music and dance with wild abandon!

Dec 8th: Make Victorian-style Christmas cards with pin prick borders.

Dec 9th: Create some marzipan fruit to gift to friends.

Dec 10th: Dodger Christmas carol singalong (they’re putting on a Victorian-themed play called Dodger next year with a group of home ed friends – at this rehearsal, everyone will bring along instruments to play carols and sing along together).

Dec 11th: Make sugar plums to give as gifts.

Dec 12th: Bake Victorian-style mince pies (with real meat – should be interesting!!).

Dec 13th: Play Victorian parlour games

Dec 14th: Snuggle up next to a fire with hot chocolate and read Christmas picture books together (check out this post of our favourite Christmas books).

Dec 15th: A voucher to spend £5 on a gift from the Canterbury Christmas market.

Dec 16th: Ice and decorate the Christmas cake.

Dec 17th: Visit Christmas at Leeds Castle (featuring a display of alternative festive trees made from materials inspired from the Castle’s state rooms).

Dec 18th: Watch the Canterbury pantomime: Nurse Nelly Saves the Panto!

Dec 19th: Make fudge together, write Christmas jokes and add these and some hats to their homemade Christmas crackers.

Dec 20th: Build a gingerbread house.

Dec 21st: Select and watch a Christmas film together in front of a roaring fire.

Dec 22nd: Burn a Christmas Yule Log outside in the woods.

Dec 23rd: Have a board game marathon!

Dec 24th: Open your Christmas Eve box as soon as it gets dark! This is another much-loved Christmas tradition in our house. The Christmas Eve box contains new Christmas pyjamas; dressing gowns or slippers if needed; a new Christmas book and film; and some hot chocolate and marshmallows. The idea is to open it up as it gets dark, slip on their new PJs, read the Christmas book and snuggle down together in front of the fire with their hot chocolates to watch the film together. Bliss!

The Kindness Activities

In past years, alongside the daily Christmas activity would also be a card with a simple act of kindness to do together, ranging from sending supportive and loving messages to people to donating toys to the children’s ward at a local hospital.

Doing it daily meant that each act of kindness needed to be quite small to make it manageable in the time frame. This year instead, I’ve decided we’ll do five larger service projects based on four key themes we’ve touched on through our studies – the abolition of child labour, food, education and clean water for all – along with a fifth environmental challenge. Information about these challenges will be hidden alongside their Christmas activity card on days 1, 6, 11, 16 and 21.

1. The abolition of child labour: children, and some extremely young, working in dangerous conditions is something we’ve read a great deal about through our Victorian studies. Whilst it’s nearly completely eradicated in the UK, it’s heart breaking to think that in some countries, this situation still exists.

Both Beans have unanimously decided that they’d like fewer Christmas presents this year. Each year, their Grandparents very kindly give them a sum of money to spend on whatever they’d like. This year, entirely of their own choice, they’ve resolved to donate this money to a worthy charity. Love them.

So, together we’ll research charities working to end child labour, particularly those in dangerous circumstances, and select one to whom they’ll donate their Christmas money.

2. Food: we’re currently reading about the terrible story of the Great Famine in Ireland from 1845-1849. The idea of being that hungry is, to the Beans and me, both desperately sad and completely unfathomable.

For this activity, we’ll focus closer to home, and the Beans will do a supermarket shop to buy required food for the local food bank.

3. Education: The Victorian era was the one in which education became available to all, starting with the ragged, church and dame schools, until by the end of Victoria’s reign, schooling was free to every children up to 12 years old.

In the UK, we are very blessed to have access to an excellent array of books available for free in libraries, but other countries are not so fortunate.

In this activity, the Beans will go through our books and choose a selection to donate to Books2Africa, a UK charity that organises the collection and sending of donated books to increase the quality of education in Africa and extend the life and impact of books by decreasing book waste.

4. Clean Water: Access to clean water is something we take for granted these days. Not so in Victorian times. The Beans have just been learning about how John Snow solved the cholera epidemic in London by tracing it back to an infected water pump.

Sadly, some countries still struggle to provide clean water to all of their people. So, for this activity the Beans will again research (this time on their own) charities working to rectify this situation and once they’ve chosen one, we’ll make a donation.

5. Environment: Victorian pollution, in the form of raw sewage in the streets and rivers was just as likely to cause damage to the human population as the local animals and plants. These days, pollution (mostly in the non-sewage form!) is still a problem.

So, as Florence Nightingale cleaned up the hospitals to save human lives, we are going to clean up our local environment to protect the flora and fauna: as a family, we’ll help clear the rubbish from the streets in our village.

I’m as excited as the children about this year’s Advent calendar and can’t wait to bring our Victorian-themed Christmas to life!

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