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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Candlelight service at church
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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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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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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 pizza or takeout for dinner on Christmas Eve and save the cooking for the big day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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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