DESIGN & SHOPPING: Open-door policy

Try an alternative advent calendar this Christmas. By Lydia Conway
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The Independent Culture
The advent calendar, like so much else to do with the late 20th- century Christmas, has succumbed to the modern world. Hijacked by Disney, covered in glitter and filled with ersatz chocolate, it's become a sad symbol of a once magical tradition.

But if you're fed up with saccharine scenes in which numbered doors open to reveal not angels, robins and lanterns in snow, but baby rattles, Barbie dolls and blue-rinse rabbits, help is at hand: we have rounded up a selection of unusual Advent calendars for the final countdown.

Cheeky Monkey's Fabric Nativity Advent Calendar may seem expensive at pounds 24.99, but this is a calendar that can be brought out year after year and will soon become part of family tradition. Shaped like a wall-hanging, it has numbered pockets housing Velcro-backed shepherds, angels and donkeys which can be taken out, one at a time, to build up the nativity scene. The gold star at the top even plays Silent Night when pressed, although after 24 days, you might wish it didn't.

Among the secular fabric calendars, our favourite was the Treasure Chest's Christmas Tree wall-hanging (pounds 17.99) which children can decorate by hooking fabric gingerbread men, candy bars and bells on to large gold buttons. If you like chocolate-filled calendars but wish to avoid the daily fight over whose turn it is to eat the sweets, Treasure Chest's cotton Mr Snowman (pounds 9.99) has 24 numbered pockets, each of which is big enough to hold as many chocolates or other small items as you have children.

A more fiddly but unusual version of this is Tridias's Do-It-Yourself Advent Calendar Mobile (pounds 5.95) from Germany. My nine- and seven-year- old boys were very keen to make this for their twin sisters and although they needed help to get started, it gave them hours of fun decorating and hanging the 25 matchboxes. We then filled them with stickers, bubble- gum, sweets, chocolate cash, stick-on gems, wash-off tattoos and anything else we could find.

Another popular do-it- yourself calendar was the Country Bunch Advent Village (pounds 5) from Marks & Spencer. This consists of a village scene which children can make themselves, adding a pre-cut cardboard house each day, finishing with the village church. No gluing is necessary and the extra free-standing animal figures bring the scene to life.

Francesca Crespi's An Advent Carousel (Frances Lincoln, pounds 12.99) takes paper craft to even greater heights in a pop-up book which tells the story of the Nativity, helped along by the angels, doves and Wise Men who are revealed behind the doors, windows, clouds and bushes which form an integral part of the pictures on each page.

Those wishing to avoid such an overtly religious message but who want a story which progresses day by day should try The Great Little Trading Company's Nutcracker Advent Calendar Story Book Set (pounds 12.99) which recounts the original tale from ETA Hoffman's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The calendar contains miniature numbered board books, each of which tells a further segment of the story. The tiny books can be hung by their gold tags on your Christmas tree, thus removing the need to rush out and buy last-minute decorations.

Cheeky Monkeys, 24 Abbeyville Road, London SW4; 202 Kensington Park Road, London W11; Bellevue Road, London, SW17; Treasure Chest direct (01829 770787); Tridias 0870 240 2104; The Great Little Trading Company (0990 673008); Marks & Spencer (0171-935 7954)