Trying to fight off future Gimme Pigs.
November 17, 2011 7:36 AM   Subscribe

We want our kids to have some kind of real Christmas experience this year instead of focusing on themselves and all the commercialism. Of course there are some details that need to be worked around.

My husband and I are Christian and we're both getting fed up with Christmas turning into such a commercial holiday. Our kids are being bombarded on all sides by toy commercials and catalogs and displays and Santa Claus and choir songs about "I just can't wait.."

We'd really like to do something this year to show them what we think Christmas should really be about. Taking care of other people, volunteering, service, and celebrating the birth of Jesus.

Here's our limitations:

1. We have no money. Christmas was thin last year and this year will be even worse. We don't want to forgo gifts completely for the kids, we don't want to punish them! It's just that when you've got three kids and maybe $150 to make a great Christmas there isn't any wiggle room for Charity donations.

2. We have a very rambunctious three year old. My older kids are 10 (nearly 11) and 8. It would be easy to take the older two and do some volunteering in the traditional sense, soup kitchens or homeless shelters. The younger one limits things though. We want to do things as a family and one parent would be so focused on keeping the little guy in check that it would be more pain than assistance for the people we'd be trying to help.

One thing I did think of doing was going to some retirement homes and visiting with some of the residents who wouldn't otherwise have family come see them. I don't know how this would go over, but it's an idea.

Something we could work on at home and deliver would be excellent.

I know there are things we can do, please enlighten me.

We aren't stuck on Christian ideas, I welcome people of any (or no) faith to give me their family service project ideas!! I'd also be happy to hear family traditions that don't cost money.
posted by TooFewShoes to Human Relations (50 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Red Cross does holiday mail for heroes. Your local Chapter probably will have cards for you--if you aren't able to buy your own--but they will handle the postage. They send the cards to deployed soldiers, vets in hospitals, and family members who are separated at Christmas. You could write up a bunch of cards (they do have some guidelines about the text you should or shouldn't put in the cards) and talk about what it means to be together on Christmas.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:42 AM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

One idea would be to spend time at home making cards or homemade items for those in retirement homes or at homeless shelters. You could make them at home and then go deliver them.

Another idea is participating in a "Giving Tree." We always have one at our church, but other organizations have them too. I'm talking about the Salvation Army and the like. Essentially, youpick a family and get a list of their sizes, ages, etc. Try to find a family that is similar to your own. Have your kids pick out items from their closet or toybox (things that are in great condition, of course) that would be nice to give to the other family.
posted by superfille at 7:44 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Having spent the past few holidays with my husband's family in Italy, where Christmas is much less commercial, I'd say the biggest difference I've felt is that the focus of the holiday is not about presents or decorations, it's all about spending time with family. Instead of focusing on volunteer projects outside the home, maybe you could turn off some of the noise and create some quality time at home. This could involve starting new traditions, cooking together, and/or visiting out of town family members or creating cards to send to them.
posted by jrichards at 7:48 AM on November 17, 2011 [14 favorites]

Oh and also, have the kids help you make and/or decorate cookies. Then buy a lot of brown lunch bags and decorate them with glitter and such. Donate them to a shelter (women and children's homeless shelter, domestic violence shelter) as "snack" sacks for the kids on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

If you like to sing as a family, you could go carolling at a retirement home or senior center or the like.
posted by superfille at 7:50 AM on November 17, 2011

Oh man, this is actually a wonderful thing to involve the older kids in with the planning! Talking with them about what they think makes Christmas so special- heck- what about giving is so good? Projects at home like baking lots of cookies, making decorations, brainstorming about what would making other people's holiday special can all be part of the fun! The three year old can help with drawing and the older kids can help the little one fill gift bags.

Making sugar-free, diabetic friendly cookies would be a really nice addition to any nursing home visits, so more people can be involved.

I love crush-onastick's idea of cards and letters for soldiers!

If you all are involved in a church, they might be able to point you all in a direction of which nursing homes or other groups would love to see some short-visits from fun little cherubs.
posted by Blisterlips at 7:52 AM on November 17, 2011

"One thing I did think of doing was going to some retirement homes and visiting with some of the residents who wouldn't otherwise have family come see them. I don't know how this would go over, but it's an idea."

This was, in fact, the first thing I thought of. Along with carolling at the senior center.

We live not far from a firehouse, cookies for the firefighters are often popular. Maybe a little trek over on Christmas Day to give a gift of nom-ables to those who give up their Christmas to sit at the firehouse to protect your town.

But like jrichards, my Christmas focus is to make a family holiday, which happens to involve some gifts and some good works, but is primarily about family. So I'd think about family traditions, family silliness, etc. I always love sitting in the living room and flipping through the 8 zillion Christmas cards my parents get from people I knew 20 years ago, while other people chat and read and work on their dissertations and drink cocktails ... just being together, and going through all those cards that are like a window into the past. It's great.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:58 AM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

also- When I was kid money was really tight- we lived in the deep woods up north, wood burning stove for heat and often got stuck in the snow during holidays. My favorite memories of those days were doing projects with my parents. We helped her paint Christmas figurines, made holiday paper-chains (wrote wishes and prayers on each slip of paper) and hung them around the house. There was lots of glitter and silly things. I think we had a Christmas thank-you list my mom had us keep up through the season.... or something like that. We spent Christmases sitting on the livingroom floor under the tree and making paper cards to say thank you to anyone who gave us gifts or did something nice for us during the Christmas season.

I like that idea so much i think I might resurrect it for my own holiday this year.
posted by Blisterlips at 8:00 AM on November 17, 2011 [7 favorites]

It's my understanding that soup kitchens and the like have lots of volunteers at Christmas and Thanksgiving, and not so many the rest of the year. One suggestion is that you could do some pre-Christmas volunteering. I don't know if Advent is part of your religious tradition, but I grew up Catholic and the four weeks before Christmas were all about "preparing one's heart" for the birth of Christ, and I think this fits in well with that idea. Since this wouldn't be happening in advance, one parent could stay home with the 3 year old on one occasion, and the other could stay home on another, and you could still be together as a family on Christmas day itself.

I also like the idea of helping the children recognize the blessings they already have--which I think is so hard when there is so much cultural encouragement to want more more more, especially around Christmas--by asking them to look through their toys and clothes for things that don't fit anymore or they don't play with and then donating any gently used items either to a Christmas charity (I've found the ones around here only want new now, though) or some other kind of charity. Of course, you can do the same. Homeless shelters always welcome warm clothes (especially socks!)(new is better for socks!) and blankets.

When I was in elementary school, my class decided at one point that we wanted to go carolling to collect canned goods for the food bank. It was so much fun and we felt so proud of ourselves. We collected TONS of food. I think we ended up doing it 3 years in a row, until we all moved on to high school. This might even be something you could organize with another couple families, so you have a nice big group of carollers.

Apologies if you've already seen this, but there are lots of ideas here, although many of them seem to be of the monetary donation kind. (It's also a few years old.)

On preview, Oooh, I love Blisterlips thank you card idea.
posted by looli at 8:03 AM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

My friend here does a homemade Advent Calendar that focuses on family activities and traditions and free and inexpensive experiences. It is very sweet, and thoughtful and I admire it every year. I may do it this year, as we, too, will be tightening the old belts. This post has a few more good tips, and you can customize the style of it for your own family, of course, and this post lists everything they did.

She also holds an annual post-holiday Shopping Embargo challenge.
posted by peagood at 8:05 AM on November 17, 2011 [5 favorites]

I really, really like your attitude about Christmas and your kids. Not to push the religious side too much, but sometimes churches a) have regular community service programs and also b) are understanding about families and youngsters wanting to "help".

I like the idea of making and sending cards or other homemade gifts.

Does your family sing? You could go caroling.

Go to a candlelit service or midnight mass. (Again with the religion.)

Find some good stories about Christmas and make a special family event out of reading them together. Make it warm; light candles or a fire if you can, make spiced cider or something special like that, gather everybody around and read them aloud on Christmas eve. Those are the things I'm glad my parents did.

You didn't ask this, but what I wish my parents had done less of was freaking out about money during the holidays. We kids knew we were poor. We got it that there wasn't going to be a forest of presents under the tree. It's really hard when you're skint, and I can only imagine what it's like with young kids, but please, please don't make how you celebrate this Christmas "about" being poor. Make it about being family, and being together and being warm.

On the "what do I give the kids" front: I grew up pretty poor as well, and one thing I'll always associate with Christmas was the stockings. My parents would buy fruits and other edibles that weren't available year-round (things like persimmons and pomegranates and dried fruits and those oranges that are made out of orange chocolate) and to this day those are some of the things I associate most strongly with (my happy memories of) Christmas. You can get stuff like that for three kids for well under your budget.
posted by gauche at 8:07 AM on November 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

Can either of you knit? You could teach the kids to make a nativity, or maybe a hat for their siblings in their favourite colours. If you know other crafts, then this could work for a few different ideas - one child carves something for another, for example, or you can make ornaments.
posted by mippy at 8:17 AM on November 17, 2011

Response by poster: You guys are awesome!! I'm actually getting really excited now!! Please keep 'em coming!!!
posted by TooFewShoes at 8:21 AM on November 17, 2011

I think it would be lovely to have the kids make cards, as suggested above. I'd suggest, if you're thinking about taking baked goods to a nursing home or shelter, you contact the place you have in mind well in advance. Issues like dietary allergies and intolerances among their residents might put restrictions on home-made baked goods.

The church Christmas trees my family participated in always wanted new goods, but an annual tradition (either before or after Christmas) of going through clothes and toys and donating those that don't fit or aren't played with (but are still in good shape) and won't make good hand-me-downs sounds like a good idea to me. The 3-year-old probably will not be of much help with this one, but the older kids should be able to assist.

Some particularly financially thin Christmases, my mother would have us kids do a prayer gift for our grandparents, as part of Advent (definitely for our Catholic grandparents, but I think we did one for our Protestant grandparents, too). We'd sit around the table after dinner with the Advent wreath lit and say a decade of the rosary, and my mom would draw a card representing the prayers that we said.

We did not have a lot of money to spare growing up, either, but I have wonderful holiday memories of baking and crafting and singing and generally having a good time with my family. Especially baking. Mom and Dad made holiday baking as much of a shared family project as possible, and those warm evenings and afternoons in the kitchen pouring ingredients into bowls, shaping or cutting out cookies, decorating them (and getting gently scolded for having my fingers in the dough too often), and conducting "quality control" (eating/setting aside the broken or overdone ones) are some of my favorite holiday memories.
posted by EvaDestruction at 8:27 AM on November 17, 2011

Do you have a particular church that you go to for worship services? I grew up Catholic, and I loved the tradition of going to Christmas mass -- the service, the way the church was decorated, the songs, dressing up. I like midnight mass, but it may be too late for your little ones?
posted by unannihilated at 8:31 AM on November 17, 2011

Something I'm planning to do for my kids this year is have a little Christmas party at the house for a few of their friends to either do some kind of craft like make ornaments or make and decorate cookies. It doesn't have to cost a could just serve hot chocolate and a few desserts and buy Christmas paper plates and cups and such at the dollar store. You could ask the kids to please bring a new toy to donate to needy kids at a shelter or something. Then you can go with your kids to drop it all off so they can personally experience the giving.
posted by daydreamer at 8:40 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

One of my favorite 100% free holiday traditions is going for a long walk on Christmas day. It's especially nice if you go to the same place every year.
posted by insectosaurus at 8:46 AM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

You could send homemade cards to soldiers deployed overseas.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:51 AM on November 17, 2011

Christmas is definitely about spending time with family so make it about that. Make Christmas decorations together, even paper chains and threading popcorn the old traditional decorations instead of the buy a kit ones you seem to see in craft stores now a days. Some of my best Christmas memories is making the Christmas cards and decorations for Christmas the years we were broke.

My SIL is Danish and bought into our family the tradition of each of the 4 Sundays before Christmas they would all gather together at a family meal and light a candle. They had a special holder with 4 candles in. I think it was to do with Advent but I know she wasn't catholic, anyway it was a lovely part of Christmas each kid got a turn lighting a candle and we all got together for a nice time. We'd often play games or make decorations and sing carols with the kids, she had a lot of amazing cheap little paper or knitted decoration ideas and we'd spend an hour or 2 afterwards doing that. I was 30 odd and it made me feel like a kid again waiting for Christmas. Memail me if you want some decoration making ideas I have links she sent me bookmarked somewhere.
posted by wwax at 8:51 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

(Stolen from a blog a long time ago): Make Jesus a manger "bed" during Advent. Each time a kid does something kind, nice, helpful, sweet-natured, etc, the recipient gets to put one piece of straw in the manger of your Nativity set. The idea is that by Christmas Day, Jesus has a warm bed of straw from all of your good deeds during Advent.

Nthing cooking and holiday cards for soldiers.

Visiting people at a nursing home is a great idea. I would bring a board game or two and ask the resident to play with the kids. The staff should be able to direct you to residents who enjoy children more.

I love the idea of holiday paper wish chains per Blisterlips.

I think some families do Magi gifts for kids as a way to circumvent the OMG PRESENTS. Three Magi=three gifts per child (from Santa if you do that, from you guys if not). Three gifts were plenty for Jesus. (not being flip.) Maybe you can do one "big" present for each child and two smaller presents, like a book and a stuffed animal.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 8:54 AM on November 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

Read O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" together.
posted by themanwho at 8:55 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing the nursing home. My mom is on an alzheimer's unit and when I bring kids to see her, the other residents light up.
posted by turtlefu at 8:56 AM on November 17, 2011

Visiting people that may be alone for the holidays seems like the Christian thing to do. I could be alone on this.
posted by dgeiser13 at 9:12 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Celebrate Advent. The Advent and Christmas season is actually 6 weeks long. The 25th is just one day of that.

One tradition is to light the Advent wreath every night at dinner and read a portion of the Christmas story (such that you finish the whole thing by Christmas), then say some prayers. Emphasize preparing yourselves for Christ by being more unselfish during this time, which should be solemn. Delay decorating your house until at least the 3rd Sunday (Gaudete) if not Christmas Eve.

After 4 weeks of preparing for Christ by working on their character and helping others, Christmas Day and its gifts should be naturally put into perspective. Then extend the celebration for the full 12 days of Christmas, which will again make the gifts on the 25th just a part of a larger celebration. You can extend your celebration with free traditions like playing music, family prayers, volunteering, and keeping up your decorations.
posted by klao at 9:12 AM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Read this story by Tolstoy to the kids.
posted by gauche at 9:19 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

How about you all make handmade things for each other? That way everyone still gets the whee whizbang happy fun of having something to unwrap, but they also all get the other kind of whee whizbang happy fun of "wow, my little sister/mom/grandma is totally thrilled with that thing that I made for her WITH MY OWN HANDS. That's kind of awesome."

The other benefit is, you've also tricked them into thinking about what someone ELSE would like rather than thinking about themselves, which is always good.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:38 AM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I love reading about simple Christmases (for example Little House on the Prairie books). The kids got super simple, useful gifts (mittens, a cup, a penny, a stick of candy). The best thing about the holidays for the family was getting an extra special meal. Sweet potatoes! What a treat! And being with family. That was the special part.

I knew of a family that one year, instead of having gifts under the tree, there was a picture of Christ set up near the tree. No gifts. However, the gifts were at Grandma's where they later went for their Christmas meal. But, the parents did this to really drive home the point of the reason for the Holiday. I don't know how it was received by the kids. I'm sure they were shocked to run out to the tree to find a picture of Christ and nothing else. But, in the end they did get gifts and an important reminder of the spirit of Christmas.

A few years ago we read, "The Christmas Jar" a story about collecting extra change all year and then near Christmas leaving this jar of money on the door step of a family in need (or just a random person). That might not work this year, but it might be a good thing to start doing to gear up for next Christmas.

We do three gifts per child. A "larger" gift and two smaller gifts (often a book and an item of clothing).

I like the idea of visiting someone who is lonely. Also, how about taking the kids out to buy a gift for someone in need and then delivering it? It could be something as simple as a box of pencils or whatever. Is there someone in your church that is in need? A neighbor?
posted by Sassyfras at 9:38 AM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

The last several years Kids Craft Weekly has organized an international holiday card swap. It's free -- you sign up, and then you get a list of 8-10 kids' names and addresses. Then you hand-make holiday cards to send to those kids, and your kids will receive cards in return. (The info for 2011 isn't up yet but I bet it will be shortly.)

We've loved doing this the past few years, and you really don't have to spend much money at all. If you have crafty supplies around the house like paper and pens or crayons you're all set. If you want to splash out you can add ribbons, stickers, glitter, etc. We've also enjoyed writing out greetings with information about our holiday traditions (we're jewish), and what it's like where we live (it's not cold at holiday time), etc. And then the kids get the "gift" of receiving mail!
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:45 AM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

We also didn't have tons of money or get expensive gifts. Some of the cheap/free things I remember most fondly about my childhood Christmases:
-Just doing crafty stuff. Making ornaments, paper chains, picture frames, cutting out paper snowflakes, etc. Now thanks to the internet you can probably find a million ideas on how to, say, make ornaments out of simple stuff like paper. We also made really cool ornaments out of eggshells. The thing about making eggshell ornaments is that it's tricky, but rewarding- so it's an activity you can spend a while doing together. I don't have kids, but through babysitting and such I get the overall feeling that kids now don't spend as much time really absorbed in crafts as we used to, and give up if it's too difficult. My grandmother was an artist and she was always having us do these really complicated crafts, and they took forever and she helped the whole time, and they always turned out amazing and beautiful. It's really worth it! Anyway, like I said, with the power of google you can probably find a million ideas for holiday crafts. Also a good one: God's Eye christmas ornaments.

Another tradition we looked forward to a lot was taking a drive to see all the Christmas lights in the fanciest neighborhoods that went all-out with the decorations.

And as far as volunteering goes- while I think it's a nice idea, I'd definitely ASK your kids what they think about it first and gauge their reaction. I'm sure it varies but they sound a little on the young side to me to be doing the homeless shelter, nursing home, etc. My mom forced us to go volunteer to visit in a nursing home once when I was young. I don't remember how young, maybe about your kids' age but I remember feeling very terrified of seeing sick people and I begged her not to make me go in. She made me go in anyway and sure enough, it freaked me out and to this day I still remember it vividly and am a little anxious when it comes to nursing homes. Obviously, it's important for kids to understand things like homelessness or whatnot, but having them face it firsthand before they are emotionally mature enough to handle it can be a little unsettling. If they aren't ready for it this year, maybe in a few more years? But I remember at various times throughout my childhood, my mom forcing us to volunteer for different things with very little explanation as to why it was important for us to be doing it. I think it would have worked better if she would have maybe explained to us first: That some people have XYZ problem. But volunteering can help, and would we maybe be interested in doing that sometime? Also, and I'm in no way saying that it sounds like YOU are doing this but at a certain age I began to get the distinct feeling that her making us volunteer was a lot more for her benefit than ours. She didn't really ever try to cultivate in us a DESIRE to be volunteering, she just made us go, and I think that was counterproductive and I never really got much out of it. Obviously this must vary a lot and your kids might do great with it- I guess all I'm saying is, if they resist, don't push it and maybe revisit it at a different time that is not the holidays.

Anyway, sorry for the slight derail. Overall, what I liked about the holidays (as many other people are saying) was simply hanging around home with my family and doing stuff together. The crafty stuff, as well as cooking together- baking and decorating cookies is an easy and always-fun tradition. I understand the link between materialism and selfishness, but they aren't necessarily equal, and volunteering isn't necessarily the antidote. Honestly, one of the really great things about Christmas for me was just the feeling that it WAS all about us- because it was, but not because they were spending a bunch of money on us. They were giving us the gift of over-the-top time and attention, and it was incredibly valuable. I don't think you can really spoil your kids by giving them a week/ weekend/ whatever of over-the-top time, love and attention.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 9:50 AM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm a nonbeliever but I was raised celebrating Christmas and I love it and I think I approach it with a fairly non-commercial eye (being an adult and not watching a lot of TV makes this easier!). Even though presents were and are a pretty big part of Christmas in my family (and community service was definitely *not*), it's the family-togetherness stuff that I remember and treasure the most and that I most want to recreate in my adult life.

I want to put in a good word for Christmas media - books, music, and movies! A lot of it is decidedly non-commercial (Charlie Brown, The Grinch, The Story of Holly and Ivy). Now, obviously books and music and movies are not cost-free, but you can get a lot of it out from the library. And there's a lot of fun in building your own Christmas library over the years.
posted by mskyle at 9:50 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was taken to a few senior citizen homes when I was a kid, and to be honest, it kind of freaked me out. It smelled weird, I couldn't understand half of what they were saying, and talking to strangers who were asking me things like "Were you a good girl this year??" was just....weird.

Why not make a list of all the volunteering possibilities, and have each kid pick one? Other ideas: asking a Children's hospital if there are any opportunities, and the same with women's shelters, soup kitchens **BEFORE** the main Christmas week, the SPCA, cleaning up a park or stream, delivering food to home-bound people (including seniors), sending cards to military folks serving abroad, or the local immigrant assistance organization. Maybe the immigrant place (I don't know what they're officially called - but almost every smallish city has one) has a day of activities, and you could go and meet some of the kids!

It looks like Utah has a volunteer clearinghouse - obviously it won't have everything, but it might be a good jumping off point. You can google "TownName Volunteer" or "TownName volunteer Christmas" for ideas.

If you're open to thinking about the holiday season beyond Christian Christmas, it would be amazing to learn about the main celebrations for each religion, especially those happening in the winter.
posted by barnone at 9:50 AM on November 17, 2011

Yeah, for some reason late 19th/early 20th century American children's books are full of simple, joyful, slightly poverty-stricken Christmases. Sassyfras mentioned Little House On The Prairie, but there's also one in What Katy Did, and Little Women famously opens with one. These would be nice books to read with your children, because they're beautiful and positive, and they're also a good source for ideas. In Little Women all the girls are given copies of A Pilgrim's Progress in different colours - the book probably isn't right for a modern-day setting, but the idea is quite sweet.

(For god's sake don't read them O. Henry - there's big a difference between appreciating the beauty of simplicity and being traumatised by a really tragic story about sacrifice that went wrong. Adults might have the maturity for the message he intended, but kids are just going to cry. I'm an adult, and I still want to cry sometimes when I read that story.)
posted by Acheman at 9:59 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Being from an "Old Scottish" family, we had some fun and unique traditions. One that really stands out was that we would decorate a tree in our yard with edible decorations for the animals. Popcorn chains, pine cones dipped in honey and birdseed, etc.

It was especially fun to watch all the birds and squirrels (who have a hard time finding food in the winter depending on where you live) virtually attack the tree.

It really made me appreciate life and giving in all their forms :)
posted by Shouraku at 10:19 AM on November 17, 2011 [10 favorites]

Seconding making things for each other. Each year my daughter and I make ornaments together and give them out for presents -- things like bread dough ornaments, or paper snow flakes. Some of my favorite Christmas things are making cookies together, singing carols (you can find words online if you don't have a songbook already), having hot cocoa while we decorate the tree (if you buy a tree each year, look hard to see if anyone sells really cheap "Charlie Brown" trees, because otherwise this is really expensive)-- it's okay to pick up leftover boughs and hang and decorate those instead.

Your older kids are big enough to embroider handkerchiefs, crochet scarves, make doll quilts, etc. The youngest can probably decorate a pot holder that some else sewed, make an ornament, or just make a lovely picture.

Also, your money will stretch much farther at a thrift store. I'd look and see what they have first (maybe see if they have a toy that suits one of your kids, get some nice clothing for each of your kids, and only then go see what the regular stores have). And if you have family that you are trying to give presents to, go large scale with making things. My cousins often did that, and I remember that we loved the year they sent us a big box of cookies, and the year they made us ice candles.

Also, have you visited your library yet? They have tons of Christmas books, including crafty ones, and movies and music, generally. At my library, we can place holds on books, so that they're waiting at our branch when we come in. My daughter reacts to a stack of Christmas books on hold very much like getting presents.

For Christmas stockings, you can make a number of treats yourself -- cookies that are generally too much work, sugar plums, chocolates (if you buy a pound plus from Trader Joes, that can be made into fruit and nut bars for the whole family), little notes from Santa. And don't forget that an orange in the toe takes up a great deal of room as well. I recommend that stockings aren't opened until everyone is up, and after they are opened, everyone has a nice breakfast before opening presents. This helps draw the morning out. (Though with a three year old, maybe a nice lunch would work better.)

Another thing that can make a few presents feel ilke a lot -- take your time opening the presents. Have the whole family watch while one person opens and then pause to be excited about the present together. If it's a new CD, put it on and sing along, if it's clothes, have them try it on and show it off, if it's a game or a toy, play a round. Only after that do you go back and have the next person open a present. (And if one of you has a puzzle as a present, often for a dollar or two at Goodwill, that can be a nice way to spend the rest of the day.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:20 AM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I worked in social services, and we always got tons of donations around the holidays: winter clothing, food, helping hands for our programs, things like that. It was GREAT, don't get me wrong, but the rest of the year saw a trickle of that kind of attention.

The most meaningful giving we got was from groups or families that established a relationship with the organization and our clients (and their families). They were in contact and on-hand throughout the year, and their extra attention during the holidays was even more welcome and warm. This might be a good way to introduce your children to the idea that giving can be inspired by Christmas, but can last much longer than the holiday season.
posted by swingbraid at 10:25 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

My brother was involved with this group

I spent several Christmases with him visiting nursing homes - caroling, talking with the residents, and giving small gifts that the organization purchased - socks and such. Those were some of the best Christmases I've had. People did bring their kids, but I don't know if there is an age limit. You might want to check to see if there is a chapter in your area.
posted by lawhound at 11:26 AM on November 17, 2011

+1 on filling the manger with straw as a bed for Jesus. We did this when I was growing up. We started the Sunday after Christmas with an empty "manger" (I think it was an old cradle or something) and a pile of straw next to it. We would draw names of other family members every Sunday and then through the week do secret good deeds for the person. For every good deed we put a piece of straw in the manger. The goal was to fill it by Christmas eve. It's a really nice way to focus on serving others at Christmas time and not making it all about getting gifts.
posted by McPuppington the Third at 11:28 AM on November 17, 2011

I gotta mention a Christmas a friend of mine recently had. His wife left him with four children a few days before Christmas. She wiped out their banking accounts, leaving him with the $25.00 in his pocket. He went to a local thrift store and bought what he could. His (young) children later told him that that had been the best Christmas they ever had. Though the gifts were not new, they were very meaningful and new to them, and he brought his little family together in what could have been their worst Christmas ever.

Also, when I was growing up, money was tight. Each year we heard from our parents that Christmas would be sparse and not to expect too much (if anything). But I do not recall one single Christmas that was sparse (in my opinion). I think being prepared for little-to-nothing under the tree made anything under the tree seem holy cow fantastic! My parents often made our Christmas gifts. My mom made my sister and I each a doll house. One year I got a homemade bathrobe (that I have now passed on to my daughter). Another year my mom made me a cabbage patch kid. I later learned how much of a sacrifice that must have been - trying to sew a simple anything makes me want to gouge my eyes out. I can't imagine how my mom must have felt making that doll, especially since sewing doesn't come easy to her.

I love the ideas of making gifts for each other. You'd be surprised what you have around the house to put something together. One year, my younger brother came across some leftover wood in the shed. He stained it and made me a hamper. When I was super little and had nothing but a few cents to my name, and couldn't afford anything for anyone, I'd go around the house finding things that perhaps had been forgotten and I'd clean them up and present them to whomever the lucky recipient was. See if you can re-purpose some stuff. Perhaps clean up some old tools or something. This year I'm putting together a sandbox for my youngest using an old tractor tire we have and some sand we already have on hand.

Do you have old t-shirts or clothes that you plan on getting rid of? How about making a quilt or blanket out of them? (Or helping a child make one for their sibling?).

I've been reading The Good Old Days books and one about Christmas, especially. It seems that the parents during Depression Era were super stressed about making Christmas special, but I don't think I've read one account where the children ever felt cheated or felt like Christmas wasn't special. The kids just don't have the concept of that kind of stress and typically don't remember Christmases that were a little sparse.
posted by Sassyfras at 11:42 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe you can plan together some volunteer opportunities for the year 2012 with each person getting to pick something. Maybe one of your kids like animals, so your family will donate X hrs to the animal shelter in the new year. Maybe one of your kids is athletic and you want to volunteer at a 5k run. Just get them together and brainstorm ways you can help in the community. One gift from the family to each family member of time to support something they care about.
posted by rvrlvr at 12:11 PM on November 17, 2011

Crafts! Make decorations: these are often the best ones. Make paper. Make advent calendars. Love the Baby Jesus hay for the manger idea.

Parties! Go sledding or hiking or skating. Play games. Read stories. There is a long tradition of Xmas ghost stories in England: the wonderful tale "The Shepherd" which CBC radio plays every Christmas season is a ghost story, and one that little boys might like (it's about a young RAF pilot trying to fly home for Christmas, getting in trouble and, well, getting some help from an unexpected force). It's available as a podcast on the CBC webpage.

MAKE PRESENTS. Each of them should make one present for the others....and you can too. Can you sew? Mom made me sets of stuffed toys: a hippo, a unicorn (when I was obsessed with Narnia), the entire set of Winnie the Pooh toys, and loads of Barbie clothes. Stuffed toys can be wobbly and odd-looking, and they're no less endearing for all that.

But the best present, bar none, was a folding playhouse my parents built in the basement (telling me I couldn't go down there because there was rat poison down): four pieces of light plywood, linked together with double hinges, each cut into one wall of a little 'house' and decorated (a door -- didn't open) with a bell beside it, a little window, wallpaper, a 'fireplace' (scraps of trim from the lumberyard), a painting on the wall. The whole thing was painted and trimmed, with little shingles on the roof. I think it was from a plan in Chatelaine or Family Circle. I can't find plans for anything like it online, but the overall design and scale was much like this: playhouse. It was sturdy, but light enough for me to haul it upstairs, into the backyard, anywhere I wanted, and fold it up when I was done (it would fit under a bed). It allowed for flexible imaginative play: it was a wall, a house, a castle, a room divider, a mountain, whatever: I and my friends used it for YEARS. Could you improv something like this, for all the kids?

Nthing the "slow present opening" thing. My parents and I open presents slooowwwlly: we eat breakfast before we open the presents, and then we go around the room, making sure that each person opens one present at a time. We also save the paper (cut the tape carefully with razor knives) and use it from year to year, not for money but for sentiment. We also make our own gift tags, from old cards that we also save, and use those from year to year. Mom has gotten the same tag on her Santa present since 1964.

We also have Xmas dinner on Boxing day, to make space for our other (massive) tradition: we fill the (very large) coffee table with food of all kinds, and graze on it over the day and well into the night. This means that we don't need to 'leave space' for a massive turkey dinner, and it also means that Boxing day has something to look forward to. It works if the table has cookies and candy and chips and cheezies, but also meat pies, sausage rolls, cheeses, veggies of various kinds. When I was a kid and we instituted this process, Mom would add actual 'buffet food' (mac and cheese, tuna casserole whatever your kids love) and/or chinese food, so that it was a real dinner, but it never felt like one, which made it special.
posted by jrochest at 12:30 PM on November 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

As a wee kid, my family lived in the middle of nowhere in Africa as my dad did research for his dissertation. Not a lot of options for gift-giving there, except for the handmade kind. I can tell you that I don't remember receiving any of the gifts my parents made for me, or that my grandparents shipped over for me, but I do remember us cutting down a small acacia tree for our Christmas tree, and I remember making salt-dough ornaments for it with my mother. We used those ornaments every year until they disintegrated ten or fifteen years later. (Mom grumbled every year about how ugly they were, but I loved those ugly, lumpy, blobby things because of the good associations I had with them.)

Here's a salt-dough recipe that looks about like what we used, although fair warning: there's a video on that page that auto-plays.
posted by telophase at 2:12 PM on November 17, 2011

Bake gingerbread (or speculaas/speculoos).
posted by iviken at 2:55 PM on November 17, 2011

My family was not very poor, but definitely very frugal (and in a 3rd world country). For Xmas we got school supplies for the next year (pencils, pencil cases, crayons etc) and chocolates. We had a very old fake tree with ornaments handed down in the family for generations and would put cotton wool on it as snow. We went to church in the morning, midnight mass, plus went to a carol service where people dressed their kids up for the nativity (pinned white sheet + foil halo = angel). For lunch we ate a big potluck meal. General seasonal activities were visiting people (especially the elderly and sick), visiting graveyards, and having other people visit for tea. I think my mother kept a batch of the most dry awful cookies around so everyone usually stuck to the tea!
posted by meepmeow at 3:19 PM on November 17, 2011

I grew up in a Christian family, and for many years, we visited a local nursing home weekly or maybe monthly. We would visit people and talk with them about the Bible, sing hymns with them, etc... Like barnone, I found it weird. I didn't like the smells, and the people seemed pretty out of it sometimes. However, it was part of what our family did, and I grew up believing that it was important to "give back" -- not just on holidays but all the time. Although I no longer identify with my parents' faith, I do still believe to my core that it is important to give thanks for what I have and give back to my community.

Now that I'm 50, as I reflect back on those experiences, I realize how important it was for some of those folks we visited to have kids around. I'm sure we bothered some of the residents, but for some others, they really enjoyed the kid energy and I don't know where else it would have come from unless they had kid-aged relatives that visited regularly.

If you decide to go that route, I encourage you to make it a regular part of your family tradition, not just an "on the holidays" kind of thing -- folks get lonely all year round.
posted by elmay at 3:34 PM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

In my house as a child, the Christ candle in our Advent wreath was made up of all our melted down candles from Christmas Eve candle-lighting services. We just added them to the top, lit them, and watched them melt down. While they melted down, we read the Christmas story aloud. Luke is the best for that.

To make it more fun to find their gifts, you can make clues that you stick in the kids stockings. My parents did this one year, and it took us three hours to find everything. It made Christmas last longer, and it was so much fun looking for each gift.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 3:52 PM on November 17, 2011

I have what I think is a slam-dunk no-brainer as far as gifts for the kids:


Think about your childhood memories. Sure, you probably remember a few gifts you were thrilled to get. But in general, which do you remember more -- the presents, or just that time your dad took you snowshoeing and you made a little fire; or the time your mom took you to a coffeeshop, ordered you a hot chocolate and taught you how to make an origami crane? Kids will think pretty much anything is special as long as you treat it like it is special.

In my experience, most kids, all they really care about is hanging out with their parents and doing something fun and neat. So give them coupons redeemable for time.

"Good for one trip to __________________" [insert name of kid's favorite restaurant]
"Good for one drive to [nearby town] to see [something neat]"
"Good for one meal -- you get to go to grocery store with mom, pick out ingredients, and help make it"

That kind of thing.

Best wishes!
posted by Alaska Jack at 4:56 PM on November 17, 2011

ADDENDUM: My parents did this, and decades later, I still remember what the coupons were for. One half-hour of getting to sit on my dad's lap steering our VW Bus around a big parking lot. One trip out the road to shoot his musket. etc. etc. - aj
posted by Alaska Jack at 5:00 PM on November 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

My children have me make a birthday cake for Jesus every Christmas. We sing Happy Birthday and all blow out the candles!

Money is tight here also. Santa only brings one treat for each child and then they get gifts from me, my parents and friends, but never much. They help out in our church's live nativity and we enjoy a candlelight service Christmas eve. We keep things very simple.

I teach my children to be helpful year around. Your older two are old enough now to go rake a neighbors leaves. Tell them it's a secret mission. They have to wait until the neighbor is gone, sneak over to their house and have the entire job done before the neighbor gets home and they can never tell. Your little one can play in the yard while you help them.

Look up and down your street, I bet you and your kids could do a stealth attack every week up until Christmas.
posted by myselfasme at 5:03 PM on November 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

Your local Area Agency on Aging, church or social services office can help you find people who need help with outdoor work. A family Saturday morning raking leaves, or picking up litter is a good deed. Follow it with hot chocolate.

My son and I made a gingerbread house every year. the 1st one was really pretty lopsided, and one piece was scorched, but it had Lifesaver 'stained glass' windows, and we lit it up with a candle. He remembers it as beautiful.

We read The Polar Express on Christmas Eve every year, including once by phone after the divorce, when he was at his Dad's.

My family had a favorite Christmas album. That music really says Christmas to me. Make a special Christmas mix for your family. The kids can help pick.

Reading this question, and the answers, made me smile.
posted by theora55 at 6:16 PM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I came back to say, that this is my favourite craft to make when I volunteer in the kindergarten class. I add white glue though, as is mentioned in the comments. I also make pomanders and give them away to people who like the scent.
posted by peagood at 6:36 PM on November 17, 2011

Response by poster: I hate Black Friday and I was looking for websites protesting it when I found Buy Nothing Christmas. I'm thinking we're going to implement some of the ideas.
posted by TooFewShoes at 6:51 AM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

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