How Can I Get My Kids to Appreciate the Non-materialistic Side of the Holidays?

Updated on November 12, 2014
S.A. asks from Chicago, IL
18 answers

I have three kids ages 12, 9 and 5. It's looking like Christmas is going to be on a really tight budget this year. I am already starting to feel down about it, especially as I see a lot of my friends already shopping for the hot toys and planning the fun, but expensive holiday themed outings etc..

I would love for my kids to see that the holidays shouldn't have to be about spending money. We're going to take a name off the tree at Church and donate to Toys for Tots. I'd also like to just do some fun, old-fashioned things that don't cost an arm and a lleg. Other than baking cookies, going to look at lights, and making a gingerbread house, what are some fun family things we can do on the cheap? I would love some ideas. I hope that there isn't too much disappointment on Christmas morning when they haven't received all of the electronics and expensive gadgets that they're asking for. If they are sad, I'd like to remind them about all that they do have and all of the fun holiday things we'd done.

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answers from Norfolk on

It might help if you gave the kids a heads up about Santa taking it easy on gifts this year.
They should pick just a few things that are important to them.

Warm cider with a cinnamon stick in it is great around the holidays.
Have some in a crock pot on low and it'll smell wonderful.
Smells help to make great memories.

You can make your own tree decorations.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Boston on

I am with Gamma G and Sherry. Huh? You are giving to the Angel Tree when you are in need??

Whatever $10 or so you were going to spend there--use it to spend on a puzzle, a DVD or a box of chocolates for your own kids.

As for your friends' gifts, keep your kids away from them after Christmas. They do not need to hear all about their fine gifts.

As for gift buying, as some other said, hit the thrift stores for newish looking toys and clothes. Wash them up and wrap the up.

If you have extra money, go day after Christmas shopping. I always do. I find great candy goodies that are half price! Your kids will love that.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Wausau on

There was a period of time when I was a kid that my family wasn't financially stable. I don't have personal memories of many of the struggles my mother had because she was good at hiding it from the kids, but she shared some of it with me when I was an adult with my own kids. Mom said there were a couple years when there would have been nothing for us - not toys, no special holiday meal - had it not been for the kindness of others.

At these times, when my mother could barely hold her own household together and she couldn't give money or goods, she gave Time. She would take at least one evening after work to volunteer with others to wrap donated gifts or pack food boxes. When things got better and she was able to donate money and items, she still kept helping out in person.

We never had insane amounts of extravagant gifts, but mom protected the magic of what we did have by sheltering us somewhat when we were little. I don't know the maturity of your 12 year old (mine knows about budgeting and that gifts come from his parents) but I suspect your young ones probably don't need to be hit in the face with hard realities just yet.

What I'm saying is, instead of spending money you don't have on an Angel Tree, volunteer your time. Your 12 year old can help you if he/she is mature. Your 9 and 5 year old can be left out of it.

"I hope that there isn't too much disappointment on Christmas morning when they haven't received all of the electronics and expensive gadgets that they're asking for."

Have they ever? Wish lists are supposed to be for ideas, not meant to be 100% fulfillment. Pick just a couple of things from the list that will fit your budget.

If you're just having normal mom-worry about disappointing the kids, I can tell you that you're probably worrying for nothing. I can't remember a single occasion of tears and whatnot on Christmas when I was a kid.

If you've literally been giving them everything they ask for, then you may have a real problem on Christmas morning. Don't try to jolly anyone out of a tantrum by listing what you've already done for them, that will backfire. Focus on the concept of gratitude and realize that you might have to dish out behavior consequences, Christmas or not.

One year when my nephew (about 8/9) was being a super brat after we'd all exchanged gifts, I picked up the toy I gave him and said I was sorry he didn't like it, and walked out of the room with it. I *would* have taken it back permanently and returned it to the store had he not come to his senses, apologized and behaved himself. He has never had a holiday tantrum again. Don't be afraid to do it with your own kids if it comes to that, but I sincerely hope it doesn't.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Chicago on

We do an activity advent and my kids love it! Every morning they open a paper bag. Some days it has activities, other days they get to eat a candy cane. It's simple, fun, and brings us together.

We do things like:
Make hot chocolate and eat marshmallows
dance to Christmas carols.
Make your own wrapping paper with cookie cutters and paint.
Make a bird feeder with pine cones
Write Santa
Take a ride on the train
Watch and Xmas movie and have popcorn
Go see Xmas lights

That's all that's coming to me. Most of the stuff is free. A few of the days are making gifts for others.

We are doing Xmas on the cheap this year too. But we always try to keep it simple.


We do an activity advent and my kids love it! Every morning they open a paper bag. Some days it has activities, other days they get to eat a candy cane. It's simple, fun, and brings us together.

We do things like:
Make hot chocolate and eat marshmallows
dance to Christmas carols.
Make your own wrapping paper with cookie cutters and paint.
Make a bird feeder with pine cones
Write Santa
Take a ride on the train
Watch and Xmas movie and have popcorn
Go see Xmas lights

That's all that's coming to me. Most of the stuff is free. A few of the days are making gifts for others.

We are doing Xmas on the cheap this year too. But we always try to keep it simple.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Chicago on

One of my friends posted a thing on face book about wrapping 25 Christmas books. Unwrapping one each night and reading it together.

Go to local Christmas concert and holiday shows at your grade school and churches. Help out at food pantry.

I would suggest that if you are hurting for money maybe don't by for strangers but buy for your own kids. Christmas doesn't have to be about expensive gadgets. Get family games. Your children are young you don't need to spend a fortune. Cook and eat together.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Amarillo on

You start family traditions that are not materialistic. Decorate the house and play holiday music, making cookies, sing carols and enjoy each other's company. You take the name from the Angel Tree and you buy something for someone other than your own.

We had gotten orders state side and it was our first Christmas back in many years. I told the kids since they get Christmas all year long, that it would be nice to do something for someone. They choose a girl and a boy about their age and we picked out something for that child and took it to the Salvation Army. There was a request from a 7 year old wanting a sewing machine. I thought either the mom wanted it or that the kid wanted it to make clothes and I had several spare machines. I repackaged a machine included scissors, straight pins, tape measure, and some needles with a card and gave it away.

Let your children learn the real meaning of Christmas. Christmas has become this money grabbing holiday that puts parents in hock for the rest of the year. Then it is time to do it all over again. We don't always get everything on our wish lists. Sometimes disappointment is noted but it is a way to learn to cope in the world.

the other S.

PS Have a good holiday season.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Denver on

Perhaps your two older kids could come up with some Christmas "wish" lists of a different sort for themselves.

You can be honest with those two (the 5 year old might not comprehend income, taxes, budget, grocery prices, medical expenses, etc) that the budget is pretty tight. Explain it as simply as possible, without sounding like it's doomsday or like you're one dollar away from living in a box. Make it sound like you're trying to be careful, and make it positive. Explain how you don't want to go into debt on credit cards or layaway plans just to have "things".

So help your kids make a list with a couple of categories. One could be "things I'd like to do at Christmas". Examples: decorate cookies, put fun Christmas lights in my room around my window, have a series of family movie nights where everyone gets a turn to choose what Christmas movie the family will watch, have a cookie decorating contest, etc. These are free or low cost activities that the kids want to do.

A second category could be: expensive things that I want, but know we can't afford right now, but want to save up for. Have them make a chart. Example: iPad. Cost: $400. And then put the money in a box or savings account and keep track of it, and maybe any extra Christmas money, or the $10 from Aunt Dorothy can go towards that. You can put $5 in the Christmas stocking and mark it "iPad money". Tell them you can't just put iPads or laptops under the tree, but you now know what they want and are willing to save for and willing to help from time to time. A lot of kids want stuff until they figure out they have to help pay for it, or until they realize how much it costs, and then they change their minds! Them: "Mom!!! I need this soooooo bad." You: "Ok, you have enough money. So buy it." Them: "Whoa. It's sixty bucks! What a rip off." Exactly.

A third category is realistic stuff. DVDs, a computer game, a new controller for the Xbox, cool sneakers, headphones, new earrings, etc. Take them to stores and show them how much things cost. Walk through Best Buy and have them note prices. Try and use that list for your shopping list, and be creative. Game stores sell used, perfectly good equipment like controllers. Craigslist has options. Thrift stores are good places to look.

A fourth category is: things I'd like to get for my family. Or things I'd like to make for my family. Or things I'd like to do for my family members. Be creative.

And remember, most of those hot toys and expensive tickets to the shows are probably going on credit cards.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Las Vegas on

We're Jewish, but Chanukah is right before Christmas this year, so of course, we're in the middle of the same sort of thing.

We celebrate the religious aspect of the holiday each night by lighting the candles and saying the blessings, but we do not have parties and presents every night. When the kids were younger, they might get some smaller things on a few of the nights and then their big gift the night we have our party.

We purposely set aside at least one night where no gifts are opened as a reminder that holidays are not all about gifts and to remind us that there are many in the world who are in need. To ensure that this is more than just a gesture, we also take children's names from the "Chanukah Tree" at our holiday bazaar at temple and buy new toys, clothes, etc. that are delivered to the children for the holiday. We also buy new toys for the "Toys for Tots" program and bring food to local food pantries. I think it's important involve children in this so they know that there are so many in this world with so very little and that we should share with those in need.

We go through our toys and things at home that are in perfect condition but not used, and I find families who would love to have these tricycles, games, clothes, etc. Get your children to do that. Even your youngest can be involved in this simple act.

We also have a community menorah lighting that we attend. We eat sufganiyot (like jelly donuts), and the children sing songs, and the rabbis dance. It's great fun. Maybe there are community places where there is caroling where you can take your kids? Or what about getting together with friends and neighbors and going caroling to nursing homes, neighbors who might be shut in, or schools that don't have the resources for programs?

Have an afternoon neighborhood open house where you supply hot cocoa, cookies and festive music, and everyone can drop by and get in the holiday spirit. It wouldn't cost much, but it would go a long way to spread cheer with your neighbors, family, and friends and show your kids that it is the relationships we make with people that are the most important things in life. Hard for them to fully realize that now, but it is a great foundation to give them, and the lesson will not be lost on them as they go through life.

Those are just a few ideas off the top of my head. Have to go and get ready for Shabbat. If I think of more later, I'll add.

Enjoy your holiday season!

J. F.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Dallas on

I agree with Elena that the donating a toy for Toys for Tots is still highlighting the materialistic side of Christmas, and volunteering or other service-based offerings might be a better fit.

Think of this way: you don't need money to do good, and Christmas should be about doing good.

I would tell your kids that while your household is financially stable, you all need to be more responsible with money this year. Because of that and because you see too many people focusing on "stuff" over the holidays, Christmas this year will be about good works and family togetherness, not big presents.

You can cook a dinner together for someone who needs it, you can volunteer to shovel the walk of your neighbors, you can make bird feeders for hungry birds, and you can walk dogs at the animal shelters, all as a family. You can also make decorations, read about old traditions people had before money took over the holiday (like mulling cider or drying oranges to hang) and try out some ideas.

I think it could be a wonderful experience, but the very first thing you'll have to do is practice smiling in the mirror, and fake it until you make it. You M. be disappointed but your kids never have to know if you smile and laugh through the season.

Good luck!

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Dallas on

We try to keep Christmas on the simpler side every year. Our children get plenty throughout the year. They are allowed to put three items on their list to Santa. This way we know what they really want. And they know Santa will not get anything mommy and daddy don't agree with, so this helps them choose carefully. It's great that my daughter WANTED a kindle last year. But she was not responsible enough for one. We told her she wasn't ready and she thought more carefully about her list. And there was no disappointment Christmas morning.

As for things to make Christmas meaningful and less materialistic...

We like to string popcorn on our tree. Yes it makes a mess while we are doing it. BUt it is very inexpensive. The kids love it. It's a project that takes a few days and they are always so proud and excited of the end result. And after the holidays we put it out for the birds to eat.

We don't exchange gifts with our friends. Instead we go do something holiday oriented. Last year we took the kids to a local mall for a free puppet show. One year we made ornaments together. We have done things that cost some money too, but most get togethers are free or cheap. Our close friends now call to plan something, rather than gift giving.

We do the cookies, lights and gingerbread houses. I think we may "steal" a friend's idea (I did okay it with her). Her daughter makes "gladness jars". She fills mason jars with candy and treats and drops them off at fire departments and police stations. I think she even brought some to the local children's hospital.

We make things for our neighbors, the trash men, teachers and our mail carrier. Last year it was salsa, one year it was chocolate dipped marshmallows. THe kids get the fun of creating and appreciating workers in the community.

Movie nights are always fun. We have a "ban" on anything Christmas until after Thanksgiving.

Many churches in our area do live nativity scenes. We are not religious, but we have done that as a family too. And it costs nothing.

Stories. There are TONS of Christmas books available. ANd they cost nothing at the local library. Now that my son is older, he is often caught reading to his sister.

Last year, we changed up our advent calendar a bit, Instead of candy, I made a simple one with something for us to do as a family each day. It may be watch a movie, make cookies, decorate and ornament or some of the other things mentioned above. Hot cocoa for dessert. Donuts for a breakfast. We also had game nights as an activity. Video game challenges. minute to win it games. It wasn't all necessarily "holiday themed". Just something fun to do together that evening. And it took a little planning. There were days where I had to sneak over and switch things around, because I knew we wouldn't have time for whatever may have been planned that night.

I know as a mom, you worry about disappointment. I imagine your kids will be thrilled Christmas morning!



answers from Santa Barbara on

Look online in your area for free or children rate plays. I've been to some free ones and my kids loved watching.

I would pre-warn the kids about it being light this year. I also think the 5 year old can get 'more' because 1) he/she has not had as many years of Christmas and 2) he/she most likely believes in Santa.

I also agree that you do not need to give to a family and this does not mean you have to spend that money on your kids. I wonder if your kids had the option, if they would pick that family or more gifts for themselves? It would be interesting and have a feeling (at least the older 2) would pick to give to the family instead of extra stuff.


answers from Grand Forks on

We celebrate Christmas from the first day of Advent until Epiphany. We try to do a Christmas related activity each day. Research free holiday family events in your area. There are lots here. We have a tree lighting ceremony at the local hospital with sleigh rides and fireworks. Our local politician puts on a sleigh ride/wiener roast. Our local utility puts on a Festival of Trees and Lights, with live entertainment. Our Legislative Buildings host a Levy with refreshments, sleigh rides and entertainment. We go to the Santa Claus Parade. We attend an Advent party, a Carol service, all of the Advent services and Christmas eve service at our church. We visit a friends church for their Carol service. We go to our work Christmas parties. We go skating, tobogganing and have a bonfire in the backyard. We take advantage of holiday special for cheap tickets for the theatre, symphony and ballet when they are offered. We pay $5 for a drive through a holiday light display with skating and sleigh rides. We ride a mini-train through the park to look at the lights. We bake and decorate, donate to the white gift at church and help with the Christmas hampers.

ETA: My kids receive things that they need anyway as gifts, like socks, underwear, toiletries, school supplies, shoes...



answers from Chicago on

I think we all tend to remember the time we spent together more than the gifts when we look back. :) Maybe get the kids friends together for a Christmas movie and popcorn? Go see the zoo lights at Lincoln park or Brookfield zoo? Go Christmas caroling? Have a potluck and get friends together to go ice skating? Find a high school or Christmas choir to go listen to? Or a high school Christmas play? Find Christmas games on line... like charades or bingo. You could make them yourself. :) I love the traditions of the holidays. One other thing that my kids enjoy is when presents are hidden and they get notes with clues as to where it is located. It is easy to have fun. .. don't point out or make comments about the lack of money. Have fun together and they may not even notice. :)



answers from Washington DC on

I'm bowled over by people posting that you should take that "angel tree" money that you would spend on ONE toy and should instead spend it on your kids. Just...gobsmacked. You aren't saying you're desperate, just that things are tight, right?

Please DO get your kids involved in charity and in the idea that even if they don't get much stuff themselves, there are other kids who get nothing. It's simply not true that "there will be tons of gifts for the kids that are poor." Maybe that's true someplace, but not anywhere I know of. In some areas, kids in needy homes will get one gift from one charity, period. Our church works with the Salvation Army and sometimes the one SA gift or stocking is the sole thing some kids receive. In our old elementary school, some families' kids got only what the school collected for them. Not every poor family is raking in goodies from multiple charities every Christmas.

So yes, tell the kids that the budget is indeed tight. Then talk with them: We have the opportunity to spend $10 on someone for whom this likely is their only new gift, or we can keep that ourselves. What do you think? Have them discuss it -- they are old enough. Most kids have wonderful charitable impulses and I bet yours will say, let's give that gift. Then be sure they help pick it out. Don't take them to Toys R Us or a huge, shiny-new-toy place -- keep it simple in one aisle at Target or whatever, so your own kids don't start to long for more stuff themselves. Talk to them about budgeting and not going over a certain amount.

Seek out hands-on charity that kids can do. Your church could parnter with the SA or other charities to create stockings for needy kids or for adults in shelters (who often need toiletries, etc.). Get the whole church to donate items and inexpensive stockings, and your kids do the packing of stockings and drive with you to deliver these items. Hands-on!

At home, have them make gifts to give each other and their friends. Dollar stores have a lot of craft materials these days. Have them read holiday stories out loud as the whole family gathers around the tree.

Since you're in a church, ask if the church would like to do a Chrismon tree (look online). You make religious ornaments and hang them on a tree at church. It could even be a large branch that you spray-paint white; doesn't have to be a pricey live tree! Again, get other kids at church involved and have the church donate materials and ALL will have fun. The kids will see their handiwork at church and it will boost the religious aspect of the holiday. They can also make Chrismon ornaments for home; most are very inexpensive to make.



answers from Richmond on

if things are really that tight, try something different, get the kids involved in making gifts for each other, do your christmas shopping at goodwill , not at mall. who needs an expensive gadget, when you could get the older kids interested in doing something for the five year old..yes, good old fashioned sibling bonding, take them sledding, christmas light looking, you dont have to spend a huge amount of money to make christmas cookies and take your kids old toys and clothes to the local shelter..K. h.



answers from St. Louis on

You've got some great ideas already and I do think it will really, really help you all and the kids if you stay positive about what they are getting and doing, etc. I realize it's easier said than done sometimes, but I do think it is key. And it sounds like you're on the right track for sure!
Here is an idea for making inexpensive ornaments or anything really...One year when I was a kid we made a manger scene out of this dough! And I have used this recipe with my kids quite a few times...not just at Christmas. It's cheap and easy and seems to keep kids occupied.

2 cups flour, 1 cup salt, 1 cup water, 1 1/2 tsp. vegetable oil
Combine together in mixing bowl. Mold into desired shapes and then bake. 250 degrees for 45min.-1 hr. Time may vary depending on size and shape made. May paint when cooled...Be sure to punch out a hole with a straw or something before baking if they are going to be ornaments on a tree.

Hope you end up having a wonderful holiday season!!



answers from Los Angeles on

As for the kids, I'd warn them sooner rather than later that Christmas may be on a smaller scale this year. But honestly, it sounds like its you that is struggling with a downscaled christmas the most.
I know we Christians make a lot of talk about not making the holiday about the materialistic. But still, when we make it about the religious, we focus on the nativity and the events around the Christmas story, often missing the significance as God in human flesh. God as human. God taking on humanity as the only way to identify with us, live the sinless and obedient life for we were intended to live, die the death that was due us, and take on our punishment. God as human. Its at the heart of the plan of salvation. I included a bible study and I recommend you do the first there chapters in the book of Hebrews. I just feel I was personally missing the significance as God in human flesh. I think it might do you good to distance yourself not just from the man -made traditions of Christmas, but from the man-made Holiday itself (no I'm not apposed to celebrating Christmas), and reflect a little more on the significance of the first advent apart from a Dec. 25) I really think it would give you some peace. I know it has for me. (and FYI, you could probably do these first three studies in under 1 hour, they are easy and short, mostly commentary, no questions to answer)



answers from Detroit on

I know it's tough as a parent when the other parents set the bar so high. But, I certainly didn't grow up with the high end stuff and I turned out fine!
I posted this in a response to another question, but what about elf on the shelf or Chrstopher pop in kins? That can be fun for the fam.
Volunteering can be difficult because many non profits have age restrictions. We have recently made fleece tied cat comforters for the animal shelter and will soon be making fleece tie blankets at church for underpriveledged. We also have a coat drive at church fir kudos in a VERY poor local city. That was a parishioners idea (and tbe kids will see a video of these kids receiving them.
We have also helped stuff food bags for another church.
We have an awesome local place called fantasyland. Its all done up by volunteers and before the kids see Santa they read a book about gratitude with mrs Claus. Then an elf comes out to ask mom/dad about each child. What their name is, fav color, what they want etc. Maybe you could find a place like that where you can have Santa remind them that less is more?

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