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10 Holiday Traditions That Are Simple, Low-Cost, and Fun

Candle by firemedic58 on Flickr

While Redefining The Holidays, I wrote that my family has some traditions that we’ve kept through the years, even as my sister and I have grown and moved across the country in opposite directions.  

We eat creamed eggs (and ham for non-vegetarians) on Christmas Eve. Does that sound like a strange meal? It was once a Christmas morning tradition, where we’d have creamed eggs for breakfast after opening presents. But then the extended family changed our gathering from evening to morning, and we didn’t get a chance to have creamed eggs for breakfast. So we moved it to Christmas Eve.

When my sister and I were just entering our teens, we decided we needed a new tradition. Long after Santa was discovered, we made a tradition that after our creamed eggs and ham, we would all sit together in front of the fire and pass around ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, each of us reading one stanza before we pass it to the next person. I remember once my grandmother called long distance while we were just beginning to read, and she joined us, reading stanzas from her copy in New Mexico.  

The tradition continued long after my sister and I left the house for college. When significant others made it home with us, they joined in the tradition. Sometimes one or both of us didn’t make it for Christmas, so we conferenced in via telephone, I in New York or Los Angeles, my sister in St. Louis.

After we read ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, we each open one present from beneath the tree. And then we either go off to bed, or – more likely – we spend some time getting our presents together for the next day’s celebration.

They are simple traditions, but there is comfort in tradition, isn’t there? Sure, sometimes we groan about reading ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, but in truth it brings us all together in the present, as it reminds us of good times in the past.

Popcorn and Cranberry Garland by Gare and Kitty on Flickr

Ten Simple, Frugal, and Fun Holiday Traditions

1.  Attend a Christmas Eve candlelight service at your church – children love this.  Or light a menorah or kinara each evening.  Or light a peace candle and place it in the window at sundown.  Remember that the ceremony is as important as the candle – make sure to infuse the lighting with meaning and significance.

2.  Work on creating your family tree together.  Each year, get together and research another generation of your family tree.  You might create a scrapbook for this purpose.  Add stories and anecdotes if you have them or can find them.  Read favorite past stories to youngsters and new members of the family.

3.  Make holiday gifts together:  eg, cookies, fudge, marmalade, jars of spices or seeds, calendars, salts, soap, bubble bath or bath salts, candles, sachets, knitting projects, sewing projects, dried soup mixes, coupons for experiences/services, your family’s traditional homemade foods (eg, frozen tamales, cannolis), and so on.

4.  Make holiday decorations together:  trim the boughs with holly and cedar, create bread dough ornaments, string popcorn and raw cranberries, make a wreath from plants in the garden, make pine-scented candles or potpourri vessels, build a homemade gingerbread house.

5.  Volunteer at your local homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or food bank. While this is a good tradition to have other times of the year as well, in the Northern Hemisphere the holidays are the coldest time of year – when more homeless people need the warmth and safety of shelter and good meals.  This experience leaves a lasting impression on many children – suddenly meals, shelter, and gifts are not taken so much for granted.

6.  Decorate wrapping paper together.  Collect newspapers, magazines, used printer paper, paper bags, and other reusable paper. Then use holiday stamps, crayons, ink, scissors, and whatever else strikes your fancy – to personalize your wrapping paper together.  

7.  Redistribute the wealth together. If your family can afford to somehow help another family who is less well-off, get together and figure out the best way to help. Could you give the other family much-needed gifts? Invite them over for dinner? Make them some homemade frozen meals they can pop into the oven when they need them? Tutor their children in English? Help set up a scholarship fund for their children to go to school? Help parents get a job, or a better job with a livable wage? Babysit their children so the adults can have a night out together? Send the children of a parent who is serving overseas a care package? Be creative – it doesn’t have to be expensive, and it shouldn’t make anyone feel uncomfortable.

Northwest Native Americans have a tradition of potlatch ceremonies, where the more wealthy families throw a big feast and give gifts for those who are less well off.  There is no expectation for the gifts to return – the return is the feeling that you have given what you can to help others.  But even if you don’t feel wealthy right now, remember there is someone else out there who is less well-off than you.  Give what you can – even if it is time and/or experience, it can be very helpful to others more in need.

8.  Play games together.  Dig out that old Scrabble board, Boggle, Pictionary, deck of cards, or whatever you have in your basement or closet.  If you don’t have any games, you can usually find them at local thrift stores and garage sales for cheap. Then spend the evening drinking eggnog and playing games!

9.  Sit in front of the fire and take turns reading a book together.  It can be ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, like my family (above). It can be a favorite family story, or a new book each year.  And if there are family members who can’t make it home for the holidays, call them on the phone and make them a part of this tradition.

10.  Reflect on the past year and make plans for the new year together.  What would you have done differently if you could?  What will you chance about yourself and your work as you move forward into the new year?  What goals did you reach this past year, and what will you strive to reach in the coming year?  How can those around you help you with your new goals, your new journey?  How can you support one another to reach these new goals?

Luminaria 'Estrellas' by jared on Flickr

Please Share Your Own Traditions!

I find it incredibly useful to hear what others are doing to create traditions and consistency throughout the holidays.  So… please add to this list!

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14 comments to 10 Holiday Traditions That Are Simple, Low-Cost, and Fun

  • We have a set of Advent calendars that we use year after year, our tree ornaments are from our nonagenarian parents, and Advent candles are inexpensive. Our trees tend to be grow-your-own, and most of our gifts over the years we have made (rolled beeswax candles and hand-dipped tapers have been popular). We set out Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa books in a jumble on the living room table to be pawed through and read aloud. Singing a capella is inexpensive to say the least, and some of us do that reasonably we’ll. I still think there is too much food, but guess who manages to be first in line! ;)

  • Lessee- My mom gets a bad back and bad attitude from baking, my uncle gets his frosty red nose every year and usually calls someone (usually one of his son in laws)a damn communist. Then there was my dad, who took a drink in the morning, his nerves to improve, that by noon he was so unwound he could hardly move. Yet I remain my usual cheerful self in spite of all of this. And I creat my own traditions-
    1- Go up to uwajimaya and get a bag of roasted chestnuts
    2- Go to the bookstore and Ask for unusual Childrens titles about the holidays that i Have read in my youth!
    3- Go to the porn shop on interurban in Tukwilaand ask them what is santa doing with the North Pole???(they have an inflatable santa out by their Merry Christmas! Buy Lube for the holidays!sign)
    4- Give people a cup of hot chocolate in my Jacf Frost mug- it has a little elf in the mug!
    5- Walk around looking at all the christmas lights- No caroling- just looking

  • My son has been the chimes master at the bell tower on campus. After attending the Christmas Eve service at church, we go up there with him and look out over the dark, nearly empty campus, while he plays Christmas carols on the bells. It’s neat to watch, from high above the ground, as the occasional young couple will stop and stand silently in the snow and listen. It’s kind of like giving a secret treat to the students who are unable to get home for the break.

  • For a long time, my family would always have a puzzle out that everyone would work on over the few days that everyone would be together. That’s fallen out of favor lately for some reason. We still always go to a museum on Christmas afternoon, or sometimes the day before or after. That’s particularly low-cost for us, as my parents live near DC and the Smithsonian is free :-)

  • For the past four years we have gotten a new pair of pj’s and a Christmas book which the girls open on Christmas Eve. They put the pj’s on, we read the book and then head off to bed. We put the books into the box with the Christmas decorations, so they really look forward to reading them again during the holidays. This is a relatively inexpensive thing that we do that I know the girls really love and appreciate it.

  • We don’t have very many set-in-stone traditions. I am not very close to most of my family. We are, however, building traditions. Christmas morning, I make waffles and then we open our presents. Around noon we drive over to my mother-in-laws for lunch and more present opening. My mother-in-law and I drink a lot of wine. I take a wine-induced nap. Then we play games all night until we finally come home.

    New Years I make fondue and have my dad over for a couple days and then my mom over for a couple days (my parents are divorced). It’s fun.

  • I love doing jigsaw puzzles and playing Catchphrase with the family. Sometimes it seems like other people would rather just sit around and watch TIV though.

    I have great memories of making stained glass ornaments with my parents. I still have some of them. I also loved decorating the Christmas tree, but I never get one anymore….

    I think holiday traditions are MUCH more important than presents for the kids. They will remember the traditions long after the whatsit is forgotten.

  • We do a nature walk and a “gift to the birds” during the Christmas season.

    I know that “Christmas lights” aren’t green but, while we generally don’t put any up, we do love to walk and see the lights. A street a few blocks over is the “holiday lights lane” of our town. We often bundle up and meander over there to ooh and ahh at the lights and other decorations.

    On Christmas Eve, we get a yule log cake from a local bakery, light candles, turn the lights out and sing carols. Then we read The Night Before Xmas and leave out cookies and carrots for Santa and his reindeer.

    We also have an advent calendar that I fill with a few treats and many notes – promises for a movie night, a picnic before the fire and such.

    Most of those traditions don’t cost a thing but are meaningful beyond measure.

  • SusanB

    Our family traditions include(d) the not so unusual cookie baking and distribution, making ornaments and house decorations, going out and cutting a tree with Dad and decorating it together. On Christmas Day, we opened stockings (my father’s forte and filled with drugstore finds) and then ate breakfast before opening tree presents. Then one person would distribute presents so that we all opened presents serially (how my parents got this to work with llittle kids I don’t know). My parents always designed their own holiday cards and sometimes we helped with the crafting. A very important tradition was that the dessert for Christmas dinner was a cookie platter containing at least one of every kind of cookie (sometimes carefully hoarded from ravenous view).
    Between Christmas and New Years we would have monopoly marathons and play a weird board game about the rise and fall of civilization/ecology called (I think) ECO. I personally used (being a geekish child) would strive to read all of LOTR and perhpas the Narnia series every year during that period of time.
    My partner and I now like to play seasonal songs together and inflict them upon any one who is in the vicinity in hope that they will also participate.

  • I’ve been thinking about this (the snow is kinda distracting :) ) and I think the most consistent traditions we’ve had in my family revolve around food.

    When my brothers and I were children my grandmother would come over and make divinity with us each year. We don’t do that any more, we’ve been trying to cut down on the treats…. Candied orange peel and fudge were the winners. It probably wouldn’t be December without them.

    The other traditional food we always make is gnocci. It’s our traditional “for special occasions” food. What’s fun about it is that we all help roll out the dough (little pieces of the dough are rolled along the tines of a fork) and my dad, who never cooks, is in charge of boiling the gnocci.

  • I love holiday traditions! We too always read “The Night Before Christmas.” This year will be special as our copy is illustrated with William Wegman’s Weimaraners, and this is our first Christmas with our own Weimaraner (purely coincidental, not a decorating scheme).

    I always make a yule log cake … every year since we got married 13 years ago. I have perfected the recipe with a melange of “How to Bake” by Nick Malgieri (which introduced the concept to me) and “Joy of Cooking” (for beauteously reliable recipes). I also always make candied orange peels.

    We often eat tamales on Christmas. And we have started keeping a family holiday journal, where we paste in our daughter’s Christmas list, the holiday postage stamp of the year, a copy of our Christmas card and/or letter, and some notes about what we did and who we see over the holidays.

    And of course … singing Christmas carols. Happy holidays!

  • [...] the evening, we settled in and talked, laughed, and partook of our newest holiday tradition: Panetone and local dessert wine. What a wonderful [...]

  • Thank you all for sharing your traditions – love them all! (Except maybe Rob’s #3…) Here are some of the great suggestions you’ve given:

    *singing carols
    *listening to church bells
    *reading books
    *doing puzzles
    *growing your own trees
    *opening advent calendars
    *visiting the local bookstore
    *making your own gifts
    *going to museums
    *decorating the tree
    *making fondue
    *making ornaments & decorations
    *walking through nature
    *looking at Christmas lights
    *leaving goodies for Santa and his reindeer
    *listening to seasonal songs
    *baking and cooking holiday goodies
    *designing your own holiday cards
    *and wonderful details about all of these things and more in your great comments…

    Thank you and have a wonderful holiday, all of you!

  • [...] 10 Holiday Traditions That Are Simple, Low-Cost, and Fun | One … – When my sister and I were just entering our teens, we decided we needed a new tradition. Long after Santa was discovered, we made a tradition that after our creamed eggs and ham, we would all sit together in front of the fire and …. My parents always designed their own holiday cards and sometimes we helped with the crafting. A very important tradition was that the dessert for Christmas dinner was a cookie platter containing at least one of every kind of … [...]

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