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Focus on Meaning, Not Money: Christmas on a Budget

Focus on Meaning, Not Money: Christmas on a BudgetWhen my grandmother reminisced about childhood Christmases, we were given a glimpse of a much simpler time.

Born in 1895, her early years were spent on Mt. Desert, Maine. Christmas was about cutting a tree and hauling it into the house to be decorated with cookies and popcorn. Her stocking was just that — one of her own stockings laid out carefully in front of the parlor stove after church services on Christmas Eve.

How wonderful it was to wake in the morning to find the stocking stuffed with an orange, a peppermint stick, and some nuts; treats made special because they were rare. Dinner was a stack of pancakes a mile high with maple syrup that had been saved especially for the occasion. Then the family would read the Christmas Story from the Bible and would sing carols.

The kids would compete to see who could make their peppermint stick last the longest. “Oh,” she’d say. “It was so tempting to bite it. But if you just licked it, it would last all day.” The youngest of eight, and the daughter of the town minister, the family didn’t have much money but she never felt poor. Her Christmases were made rich by family rituals that made the day special.

As I start planning for Christmas this year, I’m thinking about how we can recapture the simpler rituals and dreamy feeling that went with Grandma’s stories. The current economic situation and the accompanying need to cut back give us an opportunity to step back. Necessity may do what good intentions couldn’t. Necessity may help us all, finally, to rethink how we make Christmas.

Christmas Grandma’s Way

Christmas Grandma’s way means finding things that make the season meaningful without overstretching the budget. For a day or a season to be a holiday, it needs to be different from our day-to-day routines. It needs to be special. Fortunately, there are many inexpensive ways to make it so if we just pay attention to what is already happening in our communities and if we create special family rituals unique to this time of year.

Many churches have special services of Christmas music. Some communities have a Handel’s “Messiah” sing-along. Bring your own score and you too can sing the Hallelujah Chorus. Music can put you into the spirit of the season.

Find out when the local high school is giving its winter concert. You don’t have to be a proud parent to go. Enjoy being part of your community while listening to talented young people (and not-so-talented but enthusiastic young people) make music.

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Consider a late-night ride around town to look at Christmas lights. It doesn’t have to be Disney to be magic. For kids, riding around well past bedtime looking at lights is a treat.

Spend an evening making cookies. (See Psych Central’s article on holiday baking.) Make some with a hole poked in the top so you can thread them with ribbon for your tree.

Big trees cost big bucks. Consider a smaller tree this year. Think of a way to make it special.

Have a family campout under the Christmas tree. We’ve done this one for years. The kids spread sleeping bags out in the living room. We turn off all the lights except those on the tree and the kids drift off to a reading of “The Night Before Christmas.”

House decorations don’t have to be elaborate to be beautiful. This may be the year to keep the blow-up sculptures and 500,000 lights in the attic. Opt for more traditional displays like a wreath on the door or fewer lights more creatively placed.

Rent some Christmas classic videos and have a family movie night. A Charlie Brown’s Christmas, The Year Without A Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Christmas Story (and don’t forget the Grinch Who Stole Christmas!), are called family favorites for a reason. For older kids, try It’s a Wonderful Life , Miracle on 34th Street and We’re No Angels (an old Humphrey Bogart film). Search the web for Christmas movies and you’ll be amazed at the selection.

Spend part of a day as a family helping out at a soup kitchen or thrift store. Help serve Christmas dinner at a shelter.

Focus on Meaning, Not Money: Christmas on a Budget

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Focus on Meaning, Not Money: Christmas on a Budget. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.