10 Free or Nearly Free Family Christmas Activities

When my husband and I made the decision that I would not be a full-time member of the workforce while raising our children, I looked him in the eye and said, “Our children may not be raised with a lot of money, but they will be raised with a lot of FUN!”  This is especially true during the holidays.  Over the years,we sought out free or nearly free events and opportunities for family holiday fun.

I did not fully realize the importance of these yearly activities until a few years ago when my then teenage sons began asking, “Mom we will be doing all of our regular holiday events, won’t we?”  My “mama heart” was filled with happiness as I realized that they actually wanted to hang out with me and that these traditions were important to them!

There are a plethora of fun Yuletide options in our local area.  Here are ten ideas for free or nearly free family holiday traditions. 

#1: Local Businesses:   Holiday Open Houses

This activity actually begins before Thanksgiving.  These open houses generally start in late October and continue through mid-December.  We try to attend a few open houses at local businesses every year.  It’s a wonderful thing to support local, small businesses.  Featuring hot apple cider, hot chocolate, or gooey confections, businesses also often throw in discounts of ten, twenty, or even fifty percent on select items or the entire store during the open house.  This definitely gets us the spirit of the season, as well as igniting our creative gift-giving juices.

#2: Gingerbread House Making

Yes, that photo is our gingerbread house from a few years ago. Why was I holding the roof? Well, it seems that I miscalculated the ability of frosting to bond to a roof that was way too heavy. Had I not been holding it from behind, it would have been on the floor! But, when you have a young child nearly in tears because our house “didn’t work”, you do what you have to as a mom – even if that means holding it for 15 minutes while the frosting sets. I put my Super Mom cape back in the closet until the next time I need it.

That whole scenario may explain why, in the past, we have participated in gingerbread house making events through our local library, rather than creating them from scratch at home.  The houses in which the pieces were pre-formed and the icing prepared by someone who had a better grasp on how to make the cement-like liquid sugar concoction, turned out sturdier than the ones we constructed at home. However, both experiences were a whole lot of fun!  I highly recommend this family-team-building activity. Sometimes there is a small fee for these events.  The highest we have seen it is about $5 per person making a house. 

#3: Serve a Meal at your Local Homeless Shelter

One Thanksgiving we arose bright and early in the morning and headed to the South Side Mission.  We found ourselves in a room filled to overflowing with others who wished to make the holiday brighter for someone in need.  We sang some carols, ate some cookies, and awaited our parcel of meals and delivery route.  I will never forget the fact that we were the only people most of these mainly elderly folks would see all day.  We took the time to step in and say “hello, pray with them, and wish them a blessed holiday season.  We were back home in time to attend our own family festivities. 

 #4: See A Festival of Lights 

Many locales have light-filled festivals. My sister just posted a large collection of photos from a free “themed tree” walk in her town. The beautiful trees were all decorated and sponsored by local businesses.

Central Illinois has a yearly Festival of Lights.  This is a HUGE light extravaganza of floats, a little like the Rose Parade, but the floats are made of tiny, flashing, Christmas lights instead of flowers. After the annual parade, the floats are transported to a local park and set up on display.  For a nominal fee ($10 per carload) you can drive slowly through this very large, dazzling display.  It’s definitely worth the ten spot!

#5: Historic Home Walks

My oldest son and I participating in a historical home tour, circa 1945.

We LOVE historic homes!  Around Christmas, for about $10 a person you can usually tour 4-6 historic homes in your city.  However, we generally do  “one better”.  We volunteer to dress in costume and become a part of the event.  The historical society sponsoring the event generally has a special evening for volunteers to tour the participating homes for free.  So, we get to see the homes AND be a part of the action.


#6: Tree Trimming and House Decorating

Maybe you don’t consider this an event – but that doesn’t mean it can’t become an event! I added this as a category because the annual house and tree trimming are definitely an “event” in the Ware house.  We make homemade hot cocoa, gather in the living room for the official “unboxing” of all the Yuletide decor, and have an outrageously fun time trying to “out decorate” one another.  I think it’s important to note that even things like getting the house ready for the holidays can become yet another holiday tradition, which fosters togetherness and an atmosphere of joy and abundance in your home and does not need to cost a lot of money! As an added bonus, the older the boys got, the more coffee Larry and I got to consume while relaxing and “overseeing” the decorating.  😀

 DECORATING BONUS IDEA!  Get a pickle ornament! 

These are inexpensive and great fun.  The pickle ornament tradition originated in Germany.  The pickle ornament was the last one hung on the tree.  The first child to find the pickle ornament received a special gift.  In our house, whoever finds the pickle first gets a large Hersey’s candy bar.  Since I very rarely buy sweets, this is, indeed, a special prize.

I’m a pretty darn good “pickle hider”, too. Last year, it was a full 10 days before one of the boys spied. I had laid it parallel to one of the tree branches and it was really hard to see! The best part was that, while the older boys had unsuccessfully searched, it was my youngest son who finally found it. Yes! The “little guy” wins!

#7: Santa Claus Parade

Central Illinois features a yearly Christmas parade and our hometown boasts the moniker of being the “longest running holiday parade in the country”!  It’s always the day after Thanksgiving.  So, if a town near you has a parade, then bundle up and bring the kids!  The bands, floats, and frivolity are sure to get you excited about the holiday season and provide an uplifting experience for the entire family.  Plus, your kids will go home with enough free candy to keep them wired for weeks.  As an added bonus, you can ask them nicely to share of their bounty and you, too, will have some chocolate to sustain you through the busy upcoming weeks of Yuletide preparations.  

#8: Municipal Tree Lighting Ceremonies

The Friday after Thanksgiving is not only Black Friday, it’s also the evening on which many cities have their official holiday lighting ceremony.  It’s the same in our city.  After the lighting of the trees and the singing of carols, about twenty downtown businesses open their doors to the public.  Santa and Mrs. Claus are seated and taking down lists of toys from good girls and boys.  Each business features a different kind of musical entertainment and lots of free hot drinks and calorie-laden goodies.  You dress warmly and briskly make your way from one venue to the next.  It’s all free and we have done it since our boys were small.  They look forward to it all year long.  

#9: Christmas Candlelight Walks

The local park district opens up both their nature center and botanical gardens for free candlelight walks on weekends in December each year.  We try to attend both events.  This was especially a favorite activity when our boys were younger.  Little ones just seem to love seeing the twinkling lights among the trees.

Some neighborhoods really put on a great light show, too.  For many years, a neighborhood in our town did their own lighted luminary display.  The neighborhood association paid for the luminaries and each home lined the area in front of their home with them.  For two weeks preceding Christmas, cars lined up to slowly drive through the neighborhood to view the path of lights.  This is a great idea for those of you with little ones.  A relaxing evening of “oohs and ahhhs.” 

#10: Christmas Pageants and Christmas Concerts

Many schools, civic, and religious organizations offer free or nearly free concerts and plays throughout the holiday season.  Many of these programs are very professionally performed and set the Spirit of the season free in our hearts.

That’s our family’s list of traditions.  As you can see, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to create meaningful memories for your family.

What did I miss? 

Do you have a yearly tradition that is just too good to not share?  I’d love to hear about it.  Leave your comments below and let’s dialogue!

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