Christmas is my favorite time of year, but it is also one of my busiest times. My husband always says that I try to do too much, but I think it is important to make an effort to create lasting memories of these special times. Kids tend to not remember much before 5 years old, and by the time they’re 15 the last thing they want to do is hang out with their parents at Christmas, so we have less than a dozen years to form lasting memories that will stay with them for their lifetime. Years from now the kids won’t remember the gifts they received, so rather than put so much time and effort into rushing around buying them “stuff”, I do my best to craft experiences for them.
Here are some budget-friendly ideas for outings to do with your family at Christmas time:
Christmas Light Displays
This is a tradition that I have done every year since I was a little kid. It doesn’t matter where you are, if you are at home or on vacation, there will most likely be some sort of displays nearby around Christmas. Common popular places to look are botanical gardens, city parks, and upscale residential neighborhoods. If you have the budget, practically all zoos and theme parks will have professional displays.
We make it a point to go ice skating every year. None of us can skate very well (since the only time we go is at Christmas!), but there is something about it that feels so festive. In reality it’s fairly painful on the feet (and other body parts that fall onto the ice), but in the end all that gets wiped clean from your mind by the fun Christmas memories you created by doing it. Christmas music playing, dreamy visions of a Currier & Ives lithograph, hot chocolate or a peppermint mocha… fun fun!
Christmas Movie at an Historic Theater
This has recently become a “thing” that many towns offer. In a nearby town we have an old theater built in the 1920’s which was restored so elegantly, and every December they offer the classic Christmas movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas and Holiday Inn. We use this opportunity to dress up fancy — as was the custom in the old days when going to the theater — and make it a night out on the town. Many theaters have matinee showings as well, if that fits your schedule better. Do some internet searching in your area and see what you can find.
This is an excellent low-cost outing with your spouse (or significant other). We’ve had some years where the economics were lean, but we still made sure to get out once or twice in late-November/December without the kids. You can get a nice hot drink, stroll around the shops in a downtown shopping district, or even a shopping mall if that’s all you have access to. It’s always festive with decorations, Christmas music playing, and you get to enjoy the seasonal atmosphere. Keep it leisurely and relaxed — this is not a time for buying stuff, but for enjoying the company of your partner and the beauty of the season.
What feels even better than receiving? Giving! We try to teach our children to know the joy of helping others. I let them choose projects that sound good to them and we do them together as a family. We help with charity food and toy drives, the animal shelters, and even your local town needs volunteers to help with Christmas parades and such. Make Christmas time be not just about receiving presents, but contributing as well. Remember, the memories are whats important, especially for the kids, and they are far more likely to remember the Christmas when they helped decorate the town park than sitting on the couch playing video games. Do some hunting for what your options are and make it a point to have everybody in the family volunteer.
Tree Lighting Celebration
I really like attending these. Our town has a Christmas parade that we get to walk in because the kids play for the town soccer club. The parade ends with a great big celebration with caroling, hot chocolate, cookies, and the tree lighting.
Local Ballet Company’s Nutcracker
This has been a long standing family tradition that began with my mom. I loved going to the big productions with a live orchestra and all. If you don’t have a big production in your area or can’t afford the high price-tag, we often support the community ballet companies as well. It’s still a nice day out, we still get all dressed up as though we were going to a prestigious performance hall, and the local groups are often quite capable performers. It doesn’t need to be Russian Ballet to enjoy the show.
Community Christmas Party/Meal
In December you’ll find that many churches, community centers, and even the Elk’s Lodges hosting Christmas dinners or pancake breakfasts with Santa, this sort of thing. Most are open to the public for a small fee (for charity). Even if you don’t know anyone and don’t attend that church or group, I find that the people are so friendly and gracious that it boosts my faith in humanity and really makes any awkwardness vanish. You can also volunteer at these events; make it a two-for.
Cookies for the Neighbors
We live in a neighborhood where people don’t socialize much. I believe this is quite common today, unfortunately. We don’t really know our neighbors very well, so I take this opportunity to reach out and try to get to know them a little bit. We bake a bunch of cookies together as a family, package a few in pretty little bags that the kids decorate, and hand them out to the neighbors on our block. Everyone seems appreciative and the kids love doing it.
Filling the Advent Calendars
Some years ago we bought wooden reusable advent calendars. In late November, usually the weekend after Thanksgiving, we visit a candy shop or a boutique supermarket that has bulk candies in bins, and we each pick out 25 little candies. I personally like to buy a large dark chocolate bar that I cut up into smaller bits for my daily December dose of dark delight. This is such fun because everybody likes going to the candy shop. We don’t spend much on it either.
An important lesson to remember is that what you imagine the family Christmas outings will be like in your mind’s eye, and how it turns out in real life, are often quite different. I used to take this discrepancy as a failure on my part, but I’ve learned to keep a sense of humor and perspective. Like when you have high expectations for a movie, you’re always disappointed. Keep your expectations grounded in reality, just enjoy the time spent with your family, and try to remember that it’s always the little things that you didn’t plan for which make the most lasting impressions.