I grew up with Christmas insanity. It originated with my Grandfather – he did every holiday BIG. Big tree, the whistling train set circling the bottom complete with a village, outdoor lights visible from a block away, a weekend baking dozens of cookies, copious amounts of food, and a house swarming with people. And it wasn’t hard to have a living room exploding with gifts Christmas morning when you had 8 children, and then 17 grandchildren – even if some of those gifts might have been socks and underwear!
My Mom replicated the Christmas morning explosion throughout my childhood, and well into my adulthood. Our stockings stuffed to the gills, presents cascading out from under the tree across the family room floor. My Dad’s parents were co-conspirators as well – every year, my Mimi would take us on a day-long shopping spree for new wardrobes one Saturday in December, to be unwrapped from their beautiful packages on Christmas Day at their house, after we had already plowed through the landslide at home. Our holiday was every kid’s Christmas fantasy.
When I met my now husband and took him home for Christmas for the first time, I think he was in total shock. His family celebrates holidays in a more reserved, New England tradition… but it is still very full of tradition. The tradition just does not include breaking your bank to fulfill the commercialized version of Christmas we see aired on repeat in every holiday commercial. I mean come on, how many people ever actually get a car for Christmas with a big red bow on it? Lexus would have you think that’s happening in every driveway in America.
As an adult, and now a parent myself, when I reflect upon the holidays of my childhood, I have incredible memories – but they aren’t made from the explosion of gifts under the tree. With few exceptions, I couldn’t tell you what I received in any given year. The fondest memories come from the activities we did as a family, year after year, throughout the holiday season. Those are the traditions I want to perpetuate with my children.
Many of those activities are free, or cost far less than the “it” holiday gift, but provide the richest memories. There is a neighborhood in San Antonio, Windcrest. For going on 50+ years, they have a neighborhood lighting competition, with most of the neighborhood participating. As a child, we used to all get in my Grandparent’s suburban with hot chocolate and snacks, and my Grandfather would take us to see the lights. FREE! I have not found a Windcrest yet in Connecticut, but there are lots of great light displays to be seen… my favorite neighborhood Griswald’s are That House in Milford. They start putting up lights in October, and are still taking them down well into February. To find the best home light displays near you, check out Tacky Light Tour, a directory of homes nationwide with more than 10,000 lights. And last weekend, we went to the annual lighting of our downtown green, also for FREE!
Another major tradition from my childhood that I have already started with my kids is baking Christmas cookies. My Grandmother was a professional baker and had a full commercial kitchen in her house – you could mix 6+ dozen cookies at once in her mixer and bake 12 dozen cookies at a time in her massive oven. She would vacate the premises, and my Grandfather, my mom, aunts and all my local cousins would gather on a December Saturday and crank out literally hundreds of cookies. My Grandparents and the commercial kitchen are both gone now, but I do my best to keep the tradition alive with my KitchenAid mixer and single oven! And we still deliver to the neighbors! Last year, we even hosted a little frosting party with Big M’s playgroup buddies. Check out our family’s favorite recipes.
A tradition my husband and I started with our first tree, even before kids, was ornament collecting. Our first tree was decorated with generic balls and ornaments from Target. We missed the ‘meaningful’ ornaments of our mutual childhoods, and decided we would create our own meaningful collection – we have since bought an ornament every time we travel. On our honeymoon, they didn’t have any Christmas ornaments, so we bought keychains and turned them into ornaments ourselves! Decorating the tree every year is now like a giant scrapbook of all our travels. Big M likes to get her favorites in there too – like Elmo on her second Christmas.
My most favorite Christmas tradition as a child was my Grandfather’s reading of The Night Before Christmas. Christmas Eve we all went to the Christmas Eve Children’s Mass at our church, then gathered at my Grandparents’ for tamales with chili, queso, and guacamole (this is how we do things in South Texas!). Just before we would all depart to go home and wait for Santa, the house of 30+ people would get so quiet you could hear a pin drop, as every adult and child would gather around as he read to us all. My last Christmas in Texas, the year before Big M was born, he bought Hallmark versions and recorded them for all of us. He passed away in 2013, and that book will forever be one of my most prized possessions.
Giving Is More Rewarding
As much as I loved the Christmas explosion, I can now understand how fulfilling it was for my parents to see the joy it brought to our little faces. I LOVE to find the perfect gifts, wrap them in the perfect packaging, and sit on the edge of my seat to see the reaction elicited when opened.
All that being said, you can teach your kids how rewarding it is to give too… Many churches have Angel trees, or the ability to Adopt-a-Family for the holidays, where your family selects a family to buy gifts and/or a holiday meal for. If your budget is tight, there are other options for giving back. A pre-Christmas purge of gently loved, but outgrown toys and books are always welcome for donation at your child’s preschool, your church, local Boys & Girls Club, a local homeless shelter, or Goodwill. I’ve seen some families who have a “Santa sack.” The children fill it on Christmas Eve with those toys they want to share with others, and Santa takes it away and leaves their presents in the bag instead.
Giving the gift of your time is always appreciated and rewarding. As a kid in Texas, we used to volunteer with our girl scout troupe or sports teams to gift wrap for Elf Louise, an organization started by a college student in the 1960s. The first year, she collected gifts for children in 13 families. Now, they deliver more than 60,000 toys to children each year with more than 4,500 volunteers wrapping and delivering. In Connecticut, Inspirica is looking for wrapping volunteers, as well as volunteers to help pick-up, sort, wrap and process gifts in their “Toy Workshop.” They will be sorting toys, fulfilling wish cards and processing in-coming gifts and donations from 4-8PM on December 8th,10th, 11th, and 12th.
Another amazing tradition evolved out of my Grandparents’ Christmas Eve party – my cousin’s husband is a police officer. As rookies, most end up working night shifts and holidays. His rookie year, he stopped by to eat on his shift break, along with a few fellow patrolmen. They were telling my Grandfather how hard it was to a) be away from their families and b) even get a quick meal since many places are closed on holidays. He decided to invite all the area officers into our family celebration – whenever they were on break, they were welcome to stop in as long as the lights were still on, and he would serve them a warm meal and send them home with a plate of Christmas cookies. The first year, he fed my cousin’s husband and a few buddies. The next year, the invitation was announced at the station before the holiday shift began, and a dozen officers stopped in. In subsequent years, he fed upwards of 2 dozen officers annually. After he passed away, my cousin’s family took over the tradition, and according to my Mom, it has gotten so big, they are cooking at the police precinct this year. Give your local precinct a call if you are interested in doing something similar, or drop off holiday meals, cookies at the station.
Gifting on a Budget
My children still get plenty on Christmas – but with gifts from grandparents, great grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, fairy god mothers, friends and neighbors – there’s not a tremendous need for Santa to overdo it. We tend to subscribe to a ‘one big thing, and a handful of smaller items’ each.’ As infants, we only bought them one gift each. I also LOVE the ‘Three Kings’ idea – the three kings brought three gifts for Baby Jesus, so that’s all each child receives as well… I personally am not disciplined enough for that. Must be the genetic predisposition to huge holidays! A similar idea is the ‘Gift of Four – something they want, something they need, something to wear and something to read.’ Good news is I have not strewn far from that!
I have also started to try and encourage those who ask for gift ideas to buy family memberships to our favorite activities – the zoo, children’s museum, aquarium, etc. Instead of more stuff, this is the gift that keeps on giving and saves your budget all year!
In terms of buying for outside our immediate family, last year I finally suggested to both sides that we a) just buy for kids or b) draw names for adults with a set gift budget everyone agrees on. We do option A on my side and option B on my husband’s side. It had really started to get ridiculous – every year out shopping trying to buy something for everyone spending unnecessary money on something they probably do not need or want.
Friends and neighbors get cookies. My close girlfriends and I have traditionally gone out to dinner one night – everyone brings one gift at a set price point, and we do a mini-Yankee swap… lots of champagne, fun accessories, and the super cool gift T always manages to find, like these Rewined candles last year, change hands.
Other Holiday Budget Savers
Want to throw a holiday party on a budget? Make it potluck and bring your favorite cocktail. Holidays are about gathering together to celebrate and enjoy each others’ company – no one says if you host you have to provide all the food, booze and entertainment on your own dime. Want to have a gift exchange? Make it a comedic one, set a super low budget or only allow re-gifts!
Another budget saver – buy your gift wrap, gift bags, tissue, and more at a Dollar Store! I had not set foot in a Dollar Store in years until I was shopping for party favors for Big M’s first birthday a few years ago. Their wrapping section is amazing – and who needs to spend $3+ on a single gift bag or roll of wrapping paper? Another favorite – for less than $10 you can buy a roll of builder’s paper at Home Depot or even order it from Amazon. It is 3′ wide by 166′ long! Most rolls of wrapping paper are at best 10′ long. Your kids can decorate it with holiday stickers or homemade stamps, or you can go for a throwback, “brown paper packages” look. I tie them with red and green ribbons, and they look beautiful under the tree!
One of our biggest holiday budget busters every year was Christmas cards. The list had grown to well over 120 cards. Last year I edited it down to about 90. But with each card plus stamp running at about $1.50-2.00, we were spending $200 or more just on a piece of paper that ultimately goes in the garbage. This year, friends and fam, you are getting eCards. They will be individually delivered to your inbox, and my Great Grandmother and Emily Post are likely rolling over in their graves, but it’s 2014. There are amazing services out there, with gorgeous cards, and I hope to kickstart a modern tradition. If you really want a paper card, print it out. And now, I don’t have to edit my list anymore! 🙂
UPDATE: A bonus to sending eCards – people reply!!! So far, they have been greeted with a very, warm reception. Highly recommend.
What are your favorite, budget-friendly Christmas traditions or tips?