How I’ve made a DIY Custom Advent Calendar


a.k.a. How to make something for your girlfriend in secret while the house is on fire on your 9 to 5.

Lately, a good friend and colleague has recommended an article on How to balance full-time work with creative projects. The author talks about fulfilling your life and passion using little side-projects, and relying on that instead of your 9 to 5.

I’m a big advocate of not putting the heavy burden of life fulfillment on your day-to-day work. Your job might be important, and you might even like it, but I think it’s futile to rely on it as your main source of ambition. Most of the time, after 2-3 years -let alone nearly ten- in the same business, things can become rather dull, and I for one hate the feeling of the endless treadmill.

Your life is so much more than your job, and it should be! We all have quirks and strange hobbies, interests that drive us – we just need to find what they are and spend time on them once in a while.

For me, it’s always been creating something.

So, to demonstrate my method of spicing things up a bit, here’s my attempt to summarize one of my creative ventures: A DIY Advent Calendar as a gift for my girlfriend.


At first sight, the project is not too complicated.

You need a box-like structure where you add 24 little gifts so that each can be opened on a day leading up to Christmas. You can also find ample amount of examples for real-life Advent Calendar designs if you look around on the internet. For instance, here’s some of my findings on a not-too-structured inspirational board on Pinterest about this:

My inspirations for this project, collected on a Pinterest board

Looks quite easy, right?

The Circumstances – a.k.a. it’s never gonna be easy

There was a guy in my class in uni whose favourite saying was “It’s not easy” – of course, usually uttered before and preparing to exams.

Since then, I’ve figured that while he is right and it almost always isn’t easy, that’s exactly why it’s worth it in the end, right?

At work, the project I’m working on is spewing out bugs while we are getting ready for the big release, so as a result I hardly have time to look at even my non-work emails at the moment.

Furthermore, even though I’ve mentioned to my girlfriend that I’m making an advent calendar for her, I was pretty sure she thought it was just one of the nice things I’ve said, which is good, but I couldn’t have possibly made the calendar at home, because that would have surely ruined the surprise.

Oh, and did I mention that she’s doing a very restrictive diet at the moment, so all candies and chocolatey stuff for the calendar is basically out of the question? 🙂

So now you have a picture of the hard part.

I need to make the calendar possibly at the office, after/before work hours, and plan ahead so that when I have one or two minutes, I’ll jot down ideas for gifts and plans for the preparation. And buy them. Then measure them so they fit the boxes. Oh, and put together a custom design for the frickin’ calendar. In about two weeks.

Surely nothing I can’t handle! 🙂

Designing the cover and the main part

I choose to do the fun part first – dealing with the design.

During the design process, I’ve looked at a number of examples online. However, after finding them a bit too generic, I’ve started developing a unique, more grandiose idea: I’ve gathered 24 memorable milestones from our relationship in the past year. Then, the goal was to include them in one single map-like mashed design. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, due to my time constraints as well as the lack of skills to do this eloquently, I had to opt for a more easily accomplished design.

I’ve simplified the design to an elegant but minimalist, shaded one for the front cover, and I’ve used cute little stock vector penguins -which were a reoccurring theme the time we got to know each other- and Santas to decorate the inner, fold-out part.

Here are two GIFs showcasing the different layers I’ve put together for this:

Layers for the cover design – a little wordplay was included for the calendar’s name; my signature move 🙂
The main part with rulers to mark where the boxes would be.

As you can see, this was after I’ve figured out all the little gifts that would go inside the calendar, so I already knew how big each box should be.

For the sides and back of the calendar, I’ve used a similar design to the front cover, only the textual part was removed and less color was used on the less prominent places. Something like this:

Back cover design

Printing the design

This was a fairly straightforward process, as I just went to the local printing shop (GoPrint) and printed the covers on A3-size 200g glossy photo papers, hoping that everything was measured correctly. And to my surprise, it was! 🙂

Creating the box

Now that the design was done, all I needed was an actual calendar box to put them onto.

From the beginning, I wanted to create a book-like structure that she could open up, similarly to this:

I probably could have used lots of things for the material, but one of the video tutorials I’ve found online (all right, actually the only video tutorial I’ve found that makes the “standard” box-like advent calendar) talked about using foam core.

As luck would have it, one of my colleagues had some foam cores lying around at home because they were insulating their flat and he had some leftovers. So early on, I got one nice big A2-size foam core board from him. This quickly turned into two A3-size boards by cutting it (not too neatly) in half:

The cut foam core
Combined thickness

These, however, would only have a combined thickness of 40 mm (or 4 cm). As it turns out, some of the little gifts that I’ve already bought needed more than that… So, time to alter the original plan a bit.

I’ve ordered a 5 cm thick polystyrene foam board from Praktiker (the local hardware store). This foam board would create the frame, and I could use the existing foam cores to seal the back tightly.

I was 3 days before the deadline, so I thought I still have ample time on my hands, but they didn’t deliver in time (I’m blaming you, Black Friday!). So on Saturday which was a work day and by the way the very last day I had to put this together, I went there myself, bought two foam cores, and brought them back to my office.

Since the whole cutting process would take place at my office, I’ve booked a meeting room after hours, and started my work behind closed doors.

Pro tip and friendly caveat: Do NOT cut polystyrene foam board at your workplace, kids!

In fact, do not cut it anywhere if you can help it – it makes a huge mess! I’ve cleaned up after myself as best as I could, but I’m sure the cleaning ladies weren’t too happy about it.

Here are some work-in-progress photos I took in one of the meeting rooms at my office:

Starting the cut-out work – using a black&white printout to cut out the little boxes
The foam boards with the finished cutouts – back part attached using glue
Applied double-sided tape to attach the covers to the calendar body
One final look before the gifts were placed and the boxes were sealed

And the end result

The whole assembly took about 4 hours. In the meantime, I kept promising my girlfriend on Viber that I would really leave the office soon, while working on the whole thing like crazy. I was almost out of double-sided tape, and I did the perforation of the little windows in a hurry, but at last, the finished product was ready to take home!

The gifts

But what were the 24 little gifts, you ask? Well, since all the presents were opened already, here are some of the gifts I’ve hidden inside the calendar:

  • Flying Tiger mummy excavation kit
  • A small snow globe
  • Personalized Christmas tree ornament
  • LEGO Newt Scamander mini-figure
  • Bearded dragon key-chain
  • Message in a tiny bottle – Couple coupons
  • Gluten-free cookie package (Majomkenyér brand)
  • Kinder egg
  • Flying Tiger dinosaur excavation kit
  • A mechanical puzzle
  • Scratch tickets

I was trying to be as unconventional as possible with these, and it took a fair amount of time, but in the end, I think most of these were great gifts.

Also, here are some other ideas I’ve found that you can use if you decide to create an advent calendar for your loved one.

Conclusion / Final thoughts

Call me crazy, but I like doing these things, even if they are time-consuming, messy to make and might not come out perfect in the end.

Given the circumstances as well as the time I’ve had to put it together, I think the end result was quite well-built and the design was pleasant and charming as well.

When she saw this custom-made advent calendar with her name on it, her face lit up like the fourth of July – and the joy, the happiness I saw in her eyes at that moment makes this all worth it.

I remember that once she got it, every day leading up to Christmas, the morning ritual started with her opening up the little window for that day, excited to see what’s underneath.

So, you see, it wasn’t just a one-time surprise – it was almost a month’s worth.

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