When I was little, we read the advent story every Christmas, even when I was a teenager. It was something I really loved, though I had heard the story so many times. We had a book and folding picture (with the little windows you opened every day), that had a page to read as you opened the window, so over the course of the month, you got to experience the story of Christmas.
And of course, I loved anytime we got the chocolate Advent calendars, which were definitely more Santa oriented than Christ oriented. Most of the time those doors had images of cookies and presents, elves and reindeer...and opened to reveal a piece of chocolate in some holiday shape.
I think part of what I loved about both of these practices was that it helped pass the time before Christmas. We weren't a hugely religious family, so while we did often attend church around the Christmas holidays (which mostly consisted of singing Christmas carols and watching the Christmas story pageant that always seemed to be presented by kids of the church we attended), our family tradition was mostly centered on presents and family time.
Following the advent calendars gave us an activity to do each day, which was just fun. When my son was little, we looked everywhere for those chocolate advent calendars, but could never find them. All the advent calendars I found were highly Christian, and it always made me kind of sad that there weren't other options.
I know that advent is a Christian tradition, but I think that the idea of it can be turned into something really beautiful, no matter what faith you follow. I have seen some really lovely traditions that remind me a lot of advent, that focus on spreading out the observance of the holiday so that it isn't just one night (or morning).
One that I thought was great, especially for families with kids, was to have a variety of holiday activities (like baking cookies, making ornaments, decorating the tree), and either plan out which activity goes with which day or randomly pick each day, and then that is what you do! I have seen a more adult version that was an 'acts of kindness' theme, where everyday there was a simple thing you could do to make someone else's life a bit nicer (like give someone a compliment, buy a cup of coffee for a stranger, stuff like that).
I also love multi-day observances through extended ritual. I read about a really beautiful Yule practice that spread Yule into nine days: three surrounding the solstice and then three before and after that. It went along with honoring the rebirth of the sun, so the first three days you celebrated at dusk, sort of saying goodbye to the night, then the three around Yule were celebrated at night (possibly with an all-night vigil for Yule), and then the three after were celebrated at dawn, to welcome the sun. I loved the poetry of this concept!
I also recently read a version that used the nine Heathen virtues (courage, truth, honor, fidelity, hospitality, discipline, industriousness, self-reliance and perseverance), and each day time was taken to meditate on the meaning of one of these, and how it applied to your life. You could use qualities that are meaningful to your path, or ones you associate with Yule, or even focus each day on an important person in your life (and why they are so special to you). I've seen a version of this where you dedicate each day for twelve days to different deities. I just like the idea of taking time to really stop and think about things that are meaningful.
And, with all the holiday crazy that often goes on, I think it is also important to give ourselves some love as well. I had this idea of twelve days of self-love (I love that it is twelve days from Yule to New Year), and ended up writing a short story about it, which you can read here: Crystal celebrates 12 days of Yule. I'm pretty in love with this idea...but I love opening little gifts!
Speaking of opening up little gifts, I saw a really cute Pagan advent that used a puzzle as the base. It was for younger kids, but each day they could open up a little envelope with a single puzzle piece in it, and as time passed they would put together the whole puzzle (which of course was Yule themed). You would want to make sure that each day's puzzle piece was one that could connect to the ones before, so that it built up every day.
With creative magic, you can work with this idea, of each day building up on the ones before, and create a magical art piece that would hold your blessings for the coming year. You can do this as art on a page or as a sculpture. I love the image of a tree for this work.
For an art piece, you can either find a picture of a Yule tree (or draw one), and then every day you add a 'decoration'. You pick something that you want to call into your life, and draw or find a picture of something that symbolizes that. So if you want more peace, you might use a peace symbol, a picture of a dove, or someone meditating. You can also pick a decoration (like a garland) and then choose colors based on qualities you want to call to you: gold for prosperity, red for passion, silver for grace...whatever colors mean to you! And you can add gifts under the tree as well! For these, you can use actual pictures of things you want or you can use pictures of wrapped gifts, and write the things you want on the back before you add them to your picture (you can be specific, like wanting a new car, or you can be more vague, like asking for something to help you be more organized).
If you want to do this in sculpture form, you can start with a rock or other base, then build up a wire tree-form. You can can either add leaves as part of your base, or you can write wishes on the leaves too and add them as you go along. You can create tiny ornaments, through sculpture or tiny pictures with a string loop to hang on your tree. You can wrap up tiny boxes filled with things you want to receive in the coming year and place them under your tree as well. And don't forget the shining star on top!
So much focus is put on presents, on buying things for people and on that one big moment where you get to unwrap things. And so much time is spent getting ready for that one small moment in time. Adding advent-inspired activities, helps create a festive season that isn't only focused on one activity. It helps remind you of the many reasons why Yule is a wonderful time of year, and can help your holidays progress smoothly (and with less impatience, especially for kids). And it can bring deep meaning to your spiritual practice, give you a sense of sacred pause and help you take time to appreciate the many gifts in your life...not just the ones wrapped in shiny paper and tied with bows!