THE BLOG

7 Fun and Frugal Holiday Traditions for the Whole Family

12/12/2012 12:06 pm ET | Updated Feb 10, 2013

My favorite childhood holiday tradition was born out of necessity.

With six small kids, another on the way and Christmas gifts to wrap, my mom was going a little crazy. On Christmas Eve, she locked herself in her sewing room. We hovered around the door, whining about being hungry.

Around five, my mom swung open the door and demanded that my father order pizza. "I'm not cooking and sewing all day!"

Every Christmas Eve since that day, my family has either ordered or made pizza.

Most holiday traditions worth keeping are a mixture of fun, necessity and a little dash of crazy. Best of all, they need not cost a thing.

Here are our seven favorites, culled from real parents:

1. Coded Christmas Gifts
Like all children around the holidays, the Larson kids were anxious about their presents and often took to snooping. So their mother resorted to a creative solution, putting their names in code and only giving them the clues they needed to crack the mystery the day before Christmas. Myka, the oldest, notes, "Our aunt would number the stockings 1-9 and the order was based on age or birth month or something similar. I think Mom adapted that, making it trickier so we'd quit snooping."

As the Larsons have grown older, the codes have grown more complicated. Last year, the code was the childrens' names spelled out on a phone. For example, Myka was 6952.

We like this tradition because it builds suspense before the holidays, but also involves creativity, problem-solving and working together as a family.

2. Loose Change
Every year, Gabrielle Karol's grandmother saves up the loose change that accumulates in purses and coats in preparation for her family's Hanukkah celebration. Then she has her grandchildren (15 in all) guess the amount -- the child who guesses correctly receives all of the change. The tradition continues to this day, even though Gabrielle and many of her cousins are now adults. She notes that the tradition is "always a highlight -- despite the fact that the same cousins seem to win each year!"

3. Comfort Food Holidays are a celebration of family -- and that often involves making and baking customary dishes. From traditions in my own family to culinary classics culled from other people, here's a sampling:

  • Three years ago, my husband's grandmother taught me how to make Norwegian lefse and now I help Grandma Betty roll them out every year and coat them in butter and sugar. She recently gave me my own lefse rolling pin and griddle, so I can teach my daughter how to make them, too.
  • For Kim Roher of KimsKitchenSink.com, the best part of the holidays is making latkes with her family for Chanukah.
  • Ashley Baranowski loves to make traditional Scandinavian food with her family, like krumkakerosettes and kumla.

4. Santa Pajamas
On Christmas Eve, the Weigal children are allowed to open one present -- pajamas that they wear to bed that night. "Every year, we get a new set of pajamas in which to wait for Santa. Even though we are grown now, we still get Christmas pajamas!" says Valerie Weigal.

The excitement of something new, mixed with the familiarity of something old, makes this tradition a comfy, cozy keeper. If you want to reduce the total number of gifts flying around your home, so your kids don't get too tied up in who spent what -- following the lead of this mom, who withholds gifts from her kids -- you can start a family tradition that everyone gets pajamas and one other small gift.

5. Holiday Pickle Hunt
Jennifer Shaddox's favorite holiday tradition is scavenging the cucumber that's tucked into the Christmas tree. Brooke Easton practices the same tradition, but she hides a pickle ornament for her boys to find.

According to folklore, this German tradition was brought to the U.S. by immigrant families that were struggling to maintain old traditions in the new world. Unfortunately, the folklore is just that -- lore. According to Tampa Bay magazine, there are several theories for the tradition's origin, but none can be substantiated.

Regardless of the true story behind the practice, it's still a fun, quirky way for your family to spend time together.

6. Ornaments With a Tale to Tell
Kim Hall, who blogs at TooDarnHappy.com, gives story ornaments--either purchased or made--to her daughter that commemorate a special event from the past year. Kim and her daughter also write notes about the memory associated with the ornament to tuck inside the ornament box.

"Over the years, not only have we celebrated births, graduations and engagements, but we have also recognized some off-the-beaten-path events, such as appendectomies, riots in Paris during a college year abroad and a multiple state trip in a Ryder truck," says Kim. "Every year, when we decorate the tree, we all enjoy opening those ornament boxes and reading the notes that take us on a fun trip down memory lane."

7. The Gift of Giving Back
Kara Backlund and her family love to do something charitable every holiday season. "I try to make sure that we do some child-friendly volunteer work, such as baking cookies and delivering to a soup kitchen," she says. "One time, [my daughter] and my grandma got a bag of apples and went to a nursing home. They gave one to each of the people sitting in their rooms and just said 'hi' for a minute. The residents loved seeing a cute little kid, and [my daughter] loved the interaction--she still talks about it four years later."

By a similar token, Makasha Dorsey cuts down on holiday consumerism by teaching her sons to give before they get new presents. "Each year during the holiday season my boys are required to clean out their toy boxes to make room for new things," she says. "The catch is that they have to donate gently used--and sometimes even their favorite items--to charity. I think that having them part with some personal things helps them to understand that giving is necessary to be in a position to receive."

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