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It’s the most wonderful — and expensive — time of the year. Americans are estimated to spend between $942.6 and $960.4 billion on holiday-related expenses this year. And even if you try to be careful, the costs do add up: toys from Santa, thank-you gifts for your kid’s teachers, host gift bottles of wine for holiday parties and even travel costs for your whole family to visit extended family far off. But not every holiday activity has to result in visions of dollar signs dancing in your head. There are a few holiday traditions you can start with your kids that cost nothing (or virtually nothing). If you have some spare paper and some spare time, these are free ways to make holiday memories and keep kids home on break entertained.
Create A Memory Book
The holidays are a rich time for making memories, and the ones we love the most don’t always come from picture-perfect moments. (Does anyone else have family lore about an indoor snowball fight or catastrophic Christmas tree topple that gets trotted out year after year?) Starting with a blank notebook you have lying around, or even with a Google Doc, ask your kids to share some of their favorite memories from holidays past. After this year’s have passed, you can have them add onto it. You can also use it as a chance to create a survey about the holidays where you can see how your kids change over the years. Every December, ask them to write down (or transcribe for them) what their most-wanted gift is, favorite holiday movie, carol, etc. Just be sure to store it somewhere you’ll remember to find it next year!
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DIY Wrapping Paper For Friends & Family
Make wrapping paper and even gift bags feel truly personal by having your kids make their own. This may mean investing in some butcher paper, but you can get creative and go for zero-cost as well. Cut up old sheets, for example, and let kids play with food coloring for fabric wrapping. If you have solid-colored gift bags without a plastic coating, let kids draw or glue things directly onto them. Old newspaper can be carefully colored on or embellished with stickers, construction paper, cutouts from magazines, and stamps. Older kids may especially enjoy the challenge to go zero-waste with holiday wrapping and find even more stuff around the house to use, like old maps or GreenWrap from Amazon packages.
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Make A Paper Chain Countdown
You only need paper, scissors, and tape or a stapler for this. Cut long, narrow strips of paper of matching size. Create one loop and tape or staple it shut. Make the next loop in the first loop, creating a chain. Continue until the chain is the desired length — each loop represents a day to the holiday you’re counting down to. Then, before bed each night, your kid gets to tear off a loop, getting one day closer to Christmas, New Year’s Eve, etc. Usually, these are started on December 1, but you can really start it whenever. If you can’t find construction paper, you can also keep kids busy in the construction stage by having them decorate strips of paper or even write notes inside the loop to reveal each day.
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Yes, the holidays are busy, but this is a tradition you’ll feel really good about once you’ve carved out the time. Not all volunteer opportunities are kid-friendly, so you’ll want to do your own research into local shelters, food banks, and community organizations that welcome help from people of all ages this time of year. (You can find kid-friendly volunteer opportunities near you by searching the Kids that Do Good website here!) If the organizations you reach out to are set for December, consider signing up in advance for something for MLK Day, which is also a federally recognized day of service. In the meanwhile, you can find ways to give back. Have your kids sort through toys and clothes they can donate. If possible, take your kids with you when you go to drop off the donations so they can see where their once-loved, lightly-used possessions are going.
Institute Tree Time
I am stealing this from my mom, who gathered our family around an advent wreath every night of advent, which starts four Sundays before Christmas in many Christian traditions. Each Sunday, we lit a new candle until all four were lit up; then, finally, we’d light the Christ candle in the middle. While the candles were lit, we read stories, both from the Bible and from favorite books, and sang songs. I am no longer religious, but I still look back on that time warmly.
If you, like me, are more into the secular side of Christmas, you can still create a time for the family to come together and celebrate the season. I’ve dubbed my version “Tree Time.” Maybe it’s every day in December, or just the week leading up to Christmas, but set a goal to all come together by the tree. You can sing songs, read one book a night from a stack of holiday books, or just cuddle. (Or all three!)
Get A Library Haul
Holiday books are fun, but only get pulled out once a year. If your collection is light, your public library is an excellent resource. Most libraries will have a robust selection of Christmas as well as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa books. In addition to picture books, you can also go to nonfiction to find stories of how kids around the world celebrate those holidays, as well as craft and recipe books. If your kids’ winter break is especially long, create a holiday break book challenge to motivate them to spend the weeks reading; set a fun reward (like breakfast from a local diner when school is back in session) for when they complete it. Or let your local library do the work for you — many libraries have special seasonal kids’ reading challenges for just this occasion, so it’s worth checking.
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Open One Present Early
Presents, of course, cost money. Deciding to let your kids open just one present you already have early? That costs nothing extra. For some families, it’s already a part of their tradition to open one present on Christmas Eve. It’s a fun preview of the excitement that’s to come and can tide over eager kids until Christmas morning. If you have older kids, consider creating a “coupon” for one present peek or one early open and give it to them earlier in December. They then get to decide when — if at all — they use it.
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The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and its predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command, have been tracking Santa since 1955. While it makes sense for an organization that watches the skies to take on this holiday duty, it actually started as an accident. A Sears & Roebuck in Colorado listed a number for kids to call Santa, but a misprint put them through to the Air Defense Command. Before the internet, kids could call a number to find out Santa’s location. Now, they can check it via NORAD’s dedicated website. Kids can start checking the tracker on Christmas Eve to see the sleigh’s progress across the night skies.
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This is especially fun for kids who might be in a warmer climate where the holidays don’t equal snow. You can create an indoor winter wonderland, however, for next to nothing: If you have hardwood floors, push back furniture and rugs and let kids “skate” in their socks while carols play. There are other ways to create a white Christmas feel in spite of outdoor conditions: let kids “sled” down stairs (with lots of supervision and care!) or create a “snow fort” from white sheets and a few pushed-together chairs.
Have an Indoor Snowball Fight
Maybe you don’t live in a snowy place. Or maybe you do live in a snowy place, but don’t feel like mopping up melted snow after your kids have tracked it all over the place (hey, no judgment!). Either way, an indoor “snowball” fight is a great activity to keep kids entertained — and honestly, it’s fun for the entire family. You could go the most inexpensive route and used balled-up socks, though you risk losing the socks. Or, if you want to invest a little bit of money into the cause, you could pop onto Amazon and order a kit complete with super-soft, machine washable “snowballs” and a bucket to store them in, like this one.
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