Disclaimer: This article specifically mentions Christmas because that is what my family celebrates. But the ideas presented here can be used for other holidays such as (but not limited to): Yule, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, birthdays, or anniversaries.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw a post from a friend about her son’s upcoming birthday. She wasn’t sure how to “top” last year’s gift. The timing was interesting because I just finished reading an article about why there are so many shipping delays and product shortages. I was already mulling over how to make this year’s holiday season a little less about things and more about family.
The winter holidays, regardless of what you celebrate, can be focused on spending time with family and friends and not on spending money.
I only remember two gifts from my childhood. One was a doll set, complete with a cradle, from my grandma. The other was a Barbie camper bus. I remember the doll and cradle because my grandma gave my two cousins the same thing, only in different colors. I remember the Barbie bus because it was part of a traumatic Christmas morning for me as an eight-year-old.
I woke up, excited to see what “Santa” brought me, only to find a mesh stocking full of real coal hanging on my door. I was devastated. What my parents thought would be a fun joke turned into tears; then they brought the bus out from behind the tree.
The things I remember most during the winter holidays are events. We went caroling with my cousins (there are a lot of us!), and secretly left boxes full of food and little gifts on someone’s doorstep. We had sledding parties complete with snowball fights and snowman building contests. My parents were geniuses at making memories!
Then I became an adult and, for a while, I was sucked into the commercialism of the season. Have you ever made a list of gifts to buy and added everyone from neighbors to coworkers? Did you ever feel slightly guilty when you received an invitation to a gift exchange but couldn’t afford it? Did you stop to ask yourself why? Why are we, as a society, so programmed to purchase a present for every single person we’re in contact with?
It’s time to break the cycle and enjoy the holidays again.
At one point, my husband and I were raising four young children on a single income of approximately $25,000 a year. Birthday and Christmas gifts always included something they needed, because we couldn’t afford to just buy toys. One year, I came up with the brilliant yet ironic idea of putting socks in their stockings. “Socks in socks,” I called it. I always tried to find themed socks to make it fun, and the kids love it. Even now, fifteen-plus years later, they still want socks in their stockings.
That same year, my husband and I decided to buy a single gift that the family could enjoy instead of buying a lot of individual gifts. When the new Nintendo Wii went on sale in a package deal with a new television, we jumped on it. We only had the game that came with the system, but it was enough for us. Over time, we purchased other games at the pawnshops.
Now, we have a family tradition of getting a new board or card game and playing it on Christmas. There are so many games out there, and we can get more advanced ones as our family gets older. This gift allows us both to have fun and spend time together.
Other family traditions for us include books and pajamas for Christmas Eve. And we always take a winter evening to go look at light displays. I pack cookies and a thermos of hot chocolate, and we drive around for hours. There’s a local Facebook group that lists all the really fancy displays, including ones that are set to music, so we use that to plan our outing.
My mom and I started exchanging our stockings for each other to fill many years ago. It’s usually all we do for each other, but it’s challenging and enjoyable finding lots of small items that are useful or fun. As my children got older, we started including them in the stocking exchange. We give each other the stockings at Thanksgiving and return them filled right before Christmas.
We also have an advent calendar, created by my mom, made up of mini stockings strung together and numbered 1-25. In each stocking is a little slip of paper with an activity. Some we skip due to lack of interest or time, but it gives us a way to do things together as a family.
Another year, we wanted to challenge ourselves and made the rule that every gift had to be handmade. I think this was my favorite Christmas of all since becoming an adult. My youngest son and husband got together to make me a jewelry stand with hooks for my rings, and my daughter made soap. Not only do I remember the gifts from that year, but I remember all the fun we had making them as well.
This year, our family is composed of adults, older teens, and two young children. The younger ones will each get a “Santa” gift of a special toy. For everyone else? We are capping the cost per gift at $25, and are not making gift-giving mandatory. Then we will spend the day playing games, doing puzzles, watching movies, and making cookies.
A different idea we had was for each of us to buy one small gift for everyone’s stocking. The stocking gift cannot be money or a gift card unless attached to a physical item. The idea is to be creative, since the item has to fit in a stocking and be useful or fun for that individual. This idea got vetoed by the teens who are used to being able to dig into their stockings at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning.
“But wait!” I can hear the masses cry. “We’ve been buying gifts for everyone for years. They’re going to be so disappointed!” My response? Check your mindset. If you’re excited to do the holidays differently, then your family and friends will be too. But if you’re negative about it and bemoaning the shortages or wishing you could get more, you will be miserable. And misery loves company.
Tips to make a “less is more” holiday work for you:
Buy a new puzzle or board game everyone can play.
Get a new video game, especially those that are multiplayer. Check pawnshops to get it for less than the original price.
For about a month before Christmas, when you do your regular grocery shopping, add an ingredient or two for baking special cookies. This supports a healthy budget. My family’s favorite is Monster Cookies. It makes a LOT and we always have enough to eat, share with neighbors, and even freeze some for later. There are several recipes online for Monster Cookies but see below for the one I’ve used for over twenty years.
Before it gets too close to December, create a simple advent calendar and do one activity a day leading up to the holidays.
Other fun and inexpensive holiday activities might include cutting your tree, making a new memory decoration, reading a book together (a chapter or section a night), or having a sledding party with hot chocolate and sugar cookies. You can also donate your time to the food bank/soup kitchen. This is a teachable moment for your children to learn that there are others who need more help and compassion.
Create some new traditions this season. Time spent with family is more important than the items we buy.
- 12 eggs
- 4 c. sugar
- 2 lb. brown sugar
- 1 lb. butter or margarine, softened
- 3 lb. peanut butter
- 8 tsp. baking soda
- 1 tbsp. vanilla
- 18 c. oatmeal
- 1 lb. plain M&M’S®
- 12 oz. chocolate chips
Mix all ingredients in the order given. To make Monster size cookies, use an ice cream scoop to drop cookie dough onto cookie sheets, otherwise, a 1/2 inch size ball makes a nice size cookie. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. Makes 20 dozen cookies. You can freeze baked cookies or freeze small 1/2 inch size balls of uncooked cookie dough on a cookie sheet. When frozen, store in a freezer bag or Tupperware until ready to bake.
Advent Calendar List
- Write letters to Santa
- Learn a new Christmas song
- Make an ornament
- Drink hot drinks and talk about good family times
- Write a note to each family member
- Make paper snowflakes
- Play a board game
- Decorate the tree
- Make a popcorn treat
- Read a favorite holiday story
- Bake cookies and take some to a neighbor
- Make reindeer food (this is for young kids to sprinkle outside for Santa’s reindeer)
- Eat oranges and read “Christmas Oranges”
- Visit the library for books for holiday break
- Make a treat for the birds
- Bake dog treats
- Watch a holiday movie
- See Christmas lights
- Drink hot cocoa and eat buttered toast
- Be quiet and enjoy some holiday music
- Make a table centerpiece
- Make apple pretzels
- Set out Santa’s treat
- Enjoy Christmas with your family