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.

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.

Giving Meaningful Gifts

The spirit of giving doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. Non-material gifts can be thoughtful and personal.

Limit purchased gifts to the young children of the family. Children under age two often are just as interested in the bows and wrapping paper as whatever came in the box. The three- to eight-year-olds often look for something from Santa. Preteens and teens are harder since one CD can cost over $20, but we can still cut down without cutting out.

Encourage teens to think about creating gifts that have meaning for family and friends. They can burn a CD, give a “gift certificate” for help with some chore, write a poem, make some art, or bake a batch of favorite cookies.

If it doesn’t feel like Christmas without some presents, consider having the adults and maybe the older kids in the extended family choose a name out of a hat at Thanksgiving so each will have one nice present under the tree. In one family I know, one of the computer-savvy aunts keeps a spreadsheet so people get a different “Santa” each year.

Think about buying one family gift instead of something for each person. Big-ticket items like video games and new electronics don’t have to be entirely off the list if they can be shared. Small-ticket items like a new board game or jigsaw puzzle can provide entertainment for Christmas day.

Help kids make homemade gifts to give to relatives. Most of us older folk have more stuff than we will ever need but something made by a child is special. My office is adorned with lopsided clay pots, handprints in plaster, a pencil can decorated with cutouts, and picture frames made out of popsicle sticks. I wouldn’t trade any of them in for expensive trinkets.

Give the gift of time to friends. Rather than exchanging material objects this year, slip a note into a card that promises a breakfast together or a visit to a local attraction or help with a project your friend has been putting off.

Get creative with wrapping. Gift wrap is expensive and is quickly tossed away on Christmas morning (unless you have a relative like mine who saves every bow and rescues paper that she irons for reuse.) Consider decorating kraft paper instead. Or how about using fabric remnants or even pillow cases with a bow?

Cards? Make your own. Send electronic greetings. Or start a “round robin” letter among people who know and care about each other.


Food prices have been steadily rising. It may be time to rethink holiday meals too.

If you’re the host family for the big family dinner, do encourage people to bring something to share.

Have a dessert or appetizer party instead of a whole meal. When our kids were small, we invited all the neighborhood families for an annual birthday party for baby Jesus. We’d make a big cake, load it with as many candles as would fit, and all sing “Happy Birthday.” Cake and punch was enough to make it a party.

Christmas doesn’t have to be financially stressful to be successful.

I’m not so naïve to think that kids who have been brought up with mega-Christmas will be happy with a peppermint stick and a stack of pancakes. But Grandma’s stories remind us that Christmas doesn’t have to be about elaborate decorations, piles of presents, or gourmet meals. Christmas doesn’t have to be about racking up more credit card debt in order to make everyone happy. Some careful family discussion can get everyone on board to cut back at least a little and maybe a lot. By focusing on meaning instead of on money, we can redefine the season in a way that is satisfying for all.