Even though Christmas is still more than a couple of months away (so sorry if you weren’t ready for a reminder), I am trying to think of ways to create meaningful family traditions for our first holiday season together as a family of four. It’s true that my husband and I have celebrated eight years together, but we didn’t do gifts most of the time (usually we paid for a house project), so I feel like this year is really the beginning.

I want to keep our traditions simple, yet memorable; to feel rich in love and family, without spending lots of money. I don’t want our kids to feel deprived, but I don’t want them to be materialistic either. To be honest, I am not sure what their expectations of Christmas are, but I am certain they aren’t used to a huge number of presents. I want to keep their expectations low, so I can exceed them…but not too much.

I haven’t decided what we’ll be buying our kids this year — and I definitely haven’t decided if thrifted or used items will part of our plan. But I have decided that we need to think about developing our family traditions. Here is a small list of Christmas traditions that I have done or sound interesting enough to try for our own little family.

  1. Christmas dinner. For more years than I can remember, we’ve planned a special Christmas dinner with my siblings and parents. Because we all help with the labor and the food costs, it doesn’t seem overwhelming to any of us. Each person requests one dish, and we set the table with china, cloth napkins, table cloths, and serve special beverages. It’s a warm, fun time that we all enjoy.
  2. Food Hide-and-Seek. As I have mentioned many times here before, I grew up in a low income, large, farming family. Because we grew a lot of our own food, certain kinds of candy and sugary cereal were a treat. Anyway, my mom wanted to make our Christmases special and memorable without stretching the family budget too much. Someone gave my mom the idea to buy each child his or her favorite treat and hide it. This family tradition has almost hit two decades. Still today, when our Christmas dinner is finished, we head to the basement while my mom and step-dad hide food gifts for all their children, in-laws, and grandchildren. I might be in my 30s, but I still think it’s fun! And it might be a bag of licorice, or six pack of Pepsi, or homemade snack mix. Whatever it is, it was specifically chosen for the tastes of the recipient.
  3. Book string game. This idea is from a friend. I haven’t done it myself; but my kids love to read, so it’s definitely likely we will do this annually. A long length of string is attached on one end to a paper towel tube and on the other, to a book. The parent winds the string around a room. The child has to wind up the string on their tube. When they get to the end, they find a book!
  4. Present code. The same friend shared that she does a “present code” for her kids’ gifts. The clues and codes change every year, but the children always have to figure out which gift belongs to them. Something fun to make each gift more special.
  5. Grab bag/white elephant. For a few years, one of the highlights of an extended family gathering was our version of a white elephant gift exchange. Each year had a different theme (starts with “C”, $5 or less, red, etc.). Gift givers followed the rules and draw a number. The person who drew number one selects an unmarked present from the pile and opens it. The number two person can either take the first present or pick from the pile, and so on. The fun was in stealing popular presents from each other and attempting to be really creative with our gifts.
  6. Give to others. For several years, we have gone to the local shelter and served a Christmas dinner. Also, the agency that helped us with our adoption has a program in which people can purchase Christmas gifts for kids who are in residential care or foster care. I’ve considered having my kids pick out gifts for this program, although I am not sure they are ready for that this year. I’ve also played Christmas music as part of a string trio at area nursing homes. (Not that this was a gift. Once, during one of our performances, I heard one nursing home resident say to the other, “These girls need to learn to play!”) Other friends host a meal and invite older people who maybe lost a spouse or would enjoy a special meal, but no longer have the health or energy to prepare it themselves. Donna Freedman shared a great post a few years ago on Christmas gifts that make a difference.
  7. Taffy pull. The other side of my family occasionally has a taffy pull at the annual Thanksgiving or Christmas get together. And even less occasionally, it’s actually worked. Still, for all the failed masses of taffy blobs, I can conjure up pleasant memories of buttered hands pulling the taffy thin, laying it outside to cool and then biting off first crunchy (and then chewy) bits of taffy. It’s an old-fashioned tradition that is a lot of work, but if someone else is making the taffy, why not?

I am not exactly sure what I want our holidays to look like this year (although low-key and simple are definitely part of my plan), but I look forward to making memories with my family.

Do you have any favorite family traditions that don’t cost a lot, but are highlights of your family time?