This is a post by Sarah Ann Noel. – Anna
I’m like a child when it comes to the holiday season. I can barely contain my excitement and my desire to fit in everything, even the silly little things for which I am probably much too old. That’s why having children seemed like the perfect opportunity to start making a monstrous deal out of Christmas. We were basically already celebrating for the whole of December, so last year, as our daughter turned old enough to really understand what was going on, my husband suggested we create an activity Advent calendar.
When I say I like to do ALL the holiday things, I understand how easy it is to fall in with the rather materialistic mentality that seems to consume the holiday. I really like to nurture the feelings of nostalgia, service, sentimentality, and family instead, and so our activities tend to reflect that. We love to give gifts on Christmas Day, but for the most part, our festivities are built on free or cheap celebrations–something little for each day that makes it seem extra special since it’s an extra special time of year.
Here is a peek at our Advent calendar this year, 24 free (or cheap) Christmas activities…
1. Cut down a Christmas tree
My family owns acreage in Golden, Colorado with trees a-plenty. They may be more on the Charlie Brown side, but we just call it “whimsical.” Picking out a tree is always exciting; and we have found that a little winter hike and chopping down the tree with a handsaw makes it even more rustic and thrilling.
2. Mail a thank-you letter
For so many, Christmas is no different than any other part of the year. We like to take time out and consider those who will serve us even through the holidays in lieu of spending time with family and friends. This year we will be writing a letter (ie, sending a scribbly toddler-drawn picture) to a soldier.
3. Deck the halls!
This is really getting in the Christmas spirit, so much so, that sometimes we take two to three days and really make it happen. We turn on that cheesy radio station that’s already playing all Christmas music, all the time, and we pull out the decorations to trim the tree and all our nooks and crannies. Sure, this can be an expensive game. But we’ve got an incredible collection of hand-me-down and do-it-yourself items that make for an aesthetic that’s unique to us. We love the memories attached to all of our decorations and getting creative to beautify different parts of our house.
4. Homemade ornaments
Speaking of getting creative, one of our time-honored traditions is to remake pinecone ornaments for our tree each year. Our toddler can do it–it’s the perfect activity for any age. Drizzle some glue on a pinecone, give them a glitter shaker, and have at it. The kids think it’s great fun, and they sure do look sparkly on a tree. And who cares if it takes weeks and weeks to finally be rid of stray glitter? I mean. It’s Christmas.
5. Hustle and bustle at the mall
Maybe it sounds silly, but we always take an evening out at the mall. I tend toward Christmas shopping early (for preserving both savings and sanity), and so it’s actually rather relaxing to cruise the mall without the stress of gift-buying. We treat ourselves to something Christmasy at the coffee shop and then stroll from store to store, admiring the wintery window displays and the holiday-themed shopping bags swirling around us. It’s fun to checkout the holiday-only pop-ups too (this year, Denver got a Land of Nod pop-up Christmas shop that our girls have loved visiting)!
6. Winter parades
Each year, we do at least one Christmas parade. Downtown Denver has a parade of lights; and Golden, where my parents live, has a day-long Christmas celebration with free carriage rides! Most cities, but especially small towns, really love to offer up Christmas fun for free, so ask around to find out what’s going on near you.
7. Paper snowflakes
You can’t always count on a White Christmas, you know? So we make our own! Last year we used this tutorial for making the most sensational snowflakes. You can’t mess them up so it’s a great activity for kids and a fun way to add some more Christmas cheer to your living room.
8. Visit Santa–for free!
I was floored the first Christmas I tried to take my daughter to see Santa. It’s unbelievable what people charge for such a sentimental outing. And then I discovered that Bass Pro has a free Santa every year. Not only do the kids get to visit Santa, you get a free photo too! This is a real deal, folks. And maybe some of you are thinking, “BASS PRO?” I know. I was skeptical too. But they clear out a third of the store to create the most incredible winter wonderland you ever did see with a carousel and free crafts. Even if I had a million dollars, I would never take my kids to any other Santa.
An important part of keeping a handle on your own finances is to be thankful for what you have. I’m trying to instill this in my girls, and every year at Christmas we talk about those in need. This year we are working closely with Denver Rescue Mission. We helped with their Thanksgiving turkey drive and will be assisting with Christmas donations too. Even if you don’t have money to give, charities are always in need of volunteers. And while it’s really important in this season, it’s important the rest of the year too. Perhaps reserve a future date to serve after the holidays to really make an impact.
10. Christmas cards
This is easy and it will bring a smile to any grandparent’s face. Fold a piece of paper in half; draw a green triangle on the front; hand your kid some stickers and markers and have them make their own Christmas tree cards for those they love.
11. Ice Skating
A lot of cities set up special ice skating rinks for the holidays. Denver has a free rink–just pay a couple bucks if you need to rent skates. Skating outside with city lights all around just feels very “New York in a Christmas movie!”
12. Speaking of: Christmas movies
We normally add a couple movie nights to our Advent calendar so we can be sure to hit the classics. Right now, we’re still in the “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” phase; but any movie is perfectly accompanied with a bowl of popcorn and some red and green m&m’s.
13. Take a tour
Does that sound weird? Hammond’s Candy has a factory just outside of the city that makes candy canes! That’s our tour this year, especially since our three-year-old has a new obsession with candy canes. But you can take a tour almost anywhere–an old mansion, a government building, a bakery. Most places of business or historic buildings offer organized tours and sometimes throw in bonus stuff (at least some lights or a tree!) for the holidays.
14. Records and hot chocolate
When my grandmother moved in with my parents, we acquired tons of old vinyl–including lots of Christmas carols. There’s nothing like a quiet night of being serenaded by some Crooners while drinking a cup of hot chocolate.
15. Write to Santa
Sometimes we combine this with our records night, but it’s a big enough deal to stand alone too. We decorate some fancy stationary and then make a big to-do out of sending a letter (and list, of course) to Santa. If you’re willing to spare $5, you can send it off to where your kids will get a response too!
16. Bake cookies
This ought to be a sacred tradition anyway. No store bought cookies! Over the years, we’ve developed our family faves and we dedicate a whole day to baking and decorating dozens and dozens of cookies–some for friends, some for Santa, and, naturally, some for us.
17. Think of a friend
Each year we encourage our daughters to think of someone that they can surprise with an extra gift. Last year, our oldest put together a gift basket for her little friend whose mom had just had a baby. This year, we’re going to leave a note and treats for our mailman.
18. Visit your neighbors
Do you know your neighbors? I’ve heard a lot of people say they don’t. But we do! Want to know the way to their hearts? Deliver Christmas cheer. You can pick up the cutest holiday-themed baskets for a buck at Target. Toss in a few cookies and a Christmas card, bundle up, and spend an evening being neighborly.
19. Host a Christmas party
I throw a girls-only party each year, which has kind of become a big annual deal. And a holiday party doesn’t have to be expensive. We just hang out at my house and everyone pitches in with some food or drinks. You can throw in a White Elephant gift exchange for some fun and spend the night being merry.
20. Special lights displays
We are all about Christmas lights in our family. We like to take a few nights doing drives through our neighborhood and rating the lights on houses. We also look for special displays throughout town. In Denver, the capital is always especially lit up. We can also use our family gardens membership to see a huge open-space display south of town.
21. Christmas carols
My kids are still young, so we are in the business of learning Christmas songs. Have a family sing-a-long. If you’re feeling particularly perform-y, get out there and carol! You can walk your neighborhood or visit a nursing home.
22. Get crafty
Pinterest is a wealth of information for Christmas crafts, and normally with supplies you’ve already got at home. Last year we traced our hands to make reindeer and made Santa faces with cotton balls.
23. Read a book
Since I was a child, we’ve read the Christmas story from a beautiful pop-up book each year before opening gifts. It’s a lovely tradition and one that means a lot to me. If you’re not religious, you could easily supplement The Night Before Christmas, The Elf on the Shelf, or any other story–make it your own and set aside a special night for reading aloud.
24. Gifts and gift wrapping
I think it’s really fun to make a big deal out of wrapping presents. And each year, I like to see how beautiful I can make our gifts look–but on the cheap. This year, it’s brown paper bag wrapping with a photo of each family member on the front instead of to/from gift tags. Target’s dollar section always has fun wrapping supplies (if your gifts are smaller). Don’t stop at wrapping the gifts as a frugal-minded family. You can even brainstorm and create gifts together at home!
What are some free Christmas/Holiday activities that you love year after year?
Sarah Ann Noel is a blogger and editor writing mostly short stories and essays focusing on a young married life, capturing lessons and observations of love, faith, motherhood, lifestyle choices, and growth. She runs a blog that caters to young families with real-life stories–and a dash of snark. She is also a freelance copywriter and editor, working on communications projects and online copy for small businesses, non-profits, and magazines.