38 Cheap or Free Family Traditions for the Holidays

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father and son with gifts at christmas eve with mother and daughter on sofa
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FAMILY VALUES

The holidays are a time to give thanks, appreciate what you have, and spend time with loved ones. Creating and participating in family traditions can help nurture these sentiments and teach children what's important. Whether they involve inexpensive attractions or memorable holiday meals, family traditions need not cost much, if anything, to leave a lasting impression. Here are 38 classic ideas to bring the family together.

granddaughter and grandmother making the roof of christmas gingerbread house
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MAKE A GINGERBREAD HOUSE

Bake the building material and decorate a gingerbread house, or buy a kit from the store. Graham crackers also work well for this project. Seeing expert gingerbread-house displays is another tradition to consider starting.

father and son cutting down a Christmas tree
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CUT DOWN A TREE

Instead of purchasing a pre-cut tree, visit a Christmas tree farm with the kids and cut down a fresh specimen.

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STRING CHRISTMAS GARLANDS

Make popcorn and cranberry garlands for the tree, and ask older family members about other decorating trends from previous generations.

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ADD A NEW ORNAMENT

Purchase or make a new Christmas ornament every year. Consider buying them on vacation as a way to remember family trips.

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WRAP UP THE FRONT DOOR

Sheath the front door in wrapping paper and a big bow or wreath to decorate for Christmas on the cheap.

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DECORATE THE YARD

Tie bows and ribbons on the trees and bushes around the house to make a visual impact during the day, when lights don't show up.

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OUTDO THE JONESES

Arrange a friendly Christmas-decoration-and-lights competition with the neighbors. Ask friends on nearby streets to vote for the winner.

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PUT PRESENTS ON THE PORCH

Wrap large appliance boxes in wrapping paper to decorate the front porch. Fill the boxes with rocks or bricks to keep the "presents" weighted down.

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TAKE A TRIP

Instead of giving gifts, take a family trip that costs less than what you would have spent on presents.

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POST IT

Send Christmas postcards instead of holiday cards with envelopes to save on postage.

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DRAW NAMES

Arrange for each member of the extended family to draw the name of a sole gift recipient. This tradition is so much cheaper than buying gifts for everyone.

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SEND A PICTURE

Take a family holiday photo at home or pose with Santa at the mall and present framed photos as gifts.

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DO A CANNED FOOD DRIVE

Collect canned goods from friends, family, and neighbors to donate to the local food bank.

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SEND WISH LISTS TO SANTA

Write Santa a Christmas letter and mail it to the North Pole.

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GIVE STUFF AWAY

Clean out closets and donate unused toys and clothing to make way for holiday gifts.

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LET KIDS DO THEIR OWN SHOPPING

Take younger kids to the dollar store and let them pick out gifts for older siblings.

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BAKE FOR ONE AND ALL

Bake Christmas cookies and hand deliver them to friends, family, and neighbors.

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DONATE TO CHARITY

Make a donation to a local charity in a family member's name.

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BE A SPONSOR

Sponsor a child or family in need for the holiday instead of buying so many gifts for each other.

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CHOOSE STOCKING PERENNIALS

Decide on five items to put in each stocking every year, and just vary the brand or style. Choose essentials such as lip moisturizer, lotion, and other useful stocking stuffers.

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SING FOR JOY

Bundle up and go Christmas caroling with friends or extended family. Sing for the neighbors or serenade residents in a nursing home or retirement community.

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TOUR LOCAL LIGHT DISPLAYS

Drive around the neighborhood to check out the Christmas light displays. Ask family members to give each one a score and determine a winner.

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FEED THE HUNGRY

Volunteer as a family at a local homeless shelter or soup kitchen.

Candlelight service at church
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SEE THE LIGHT

Attend a Christmas Eve candlelight service, or attend the community's annual holiday tree lighting, which is usually free and open to the public.

Kids in a school play
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SEE A HOLIDAY PERFORMANCE

Attend a high school production of a holiday play, such as "The Christmas Carol," or a local ballet school production of "The Nutcracker." Tickets are much cheaper than professional stagings.

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COOK TOGETHER

Prepare a meal together on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. Let each family member add a favorite dish to the menu, or try making holiday-shaped pancakes.

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ORDER IN

Order pizza or takeout for dinner on Christmas Eve and save the cooking for the big day.

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READ TOGETHER

On Christmas Eve, read a holiday-themed book such as "The Polar Express" or "The Night Before Christmas."

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SCREEN A MOVIE

Watch a traditional holiday film together every year. "It's a Wonderful Life" is a perennial favorite.

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WEAR MATCHING 'JAMMIES

Buy the kids matching pajamas to wear on Christmas Eve (and ask them to pose for a few pictures).

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OPEN ONE GIFT EARLY

Let everyone open one gift from parents or grandparents before bedtime.

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SIGNAL THE REINDEER

Leave reindeer food (e.g., oatmeal) in the front yard so the animals can find their way.

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BE KIND TO SANTA

Put out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk for Santa.

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START CHRISTMAS MORNING IN BED

Hang the kids' stockings at the end of their beds after they fall asleep on Christmas Eve. This will keep them occupied in the morning while parents enjoy a few more minutes of sleep.

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SET UP A GIFT HUNT

Hide one present from Santa and set the kids loose searching for it.

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POP NEW YEAR'S BALLOONS

Fill balloons with candy, plastic rings, necklaces, coins, etc., on New Year's Eve. Label balloons for each hour of the evening and have children pop them at the appointed time.

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SPREAD OUT THE PARTY

Do a progressive New Year's Eve dinner with friends or neighbors. Each house can host one part of the meal (appetizers, salad, main course, dessert), so no one is responsible for the entire evening.

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ATTEND A NEW YEAR'S CELEBRATION

Research family-friendly New Year's Eve celebrations in your community and make it a tradition to go as a family every year -- at least until the kids are old enough to want to do their own thing.

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