22 free (or very cheap) ways to sprinkle some Christmas magic
Many are feeling the pressure to spend in the run-up to Christmas – and this is especially true for those with kids. So we wanted to come up with some ways to sprinkle a little Christmas magic for free (or very cheaply).
Chances are your best childhood Christmas memories aren't about beautifully co-ordinated baubles or finest-range turkeys. For many, it's the build-up that's the most fun – traditions that involve creating memories with loved ones.
Your love and time really are the best gifts you can give. This could mean driving round after dark to admire Christmas lights or snuggling up with The Muppet Christmas Carol. So, to inspire, here's a sackful of simple gestures and experiences to put smiles on kids' faces (and grown-ups' too) – with a handful of brand-new ones for Christmas 2019:
- Drive past twinkly streets after dark. Most areas have a street where Christmas lovers go all out, festooning their houses with bright lights and glowing reindeers. So hop in the car and drive round admiring the displays. It's worth searching local papers and Facebook groups for tips on the most festive areas.
- Snuggle up with The Polar Express and a hot chocolate. For instant cheer, grab a blanket, switch on the fairy lights and snuggle up with a Christmassy movie. The cheesier the better. Add a little luxury with hot chocolate topped with whipped cream or marshmallows.
If you're looking for inspiration, MoneySavers' most adored movies were Christmas Carol, Elf, Home Alone and It's A Wonderful Life. See our What's Your Favourite Christmas Film? poll for full results.
- Leave some clues to make it look like Father Christmas has been. Santa's such a pro at plopping down the chimney, he rarely leaves evidence that he's paid a visit. So consider leaving a few clues yourself. After little ones have gone to bed, creep past their bedroom door and jingle some bells.
A classic is leaving a trail of huge floury boot-prints (you can download a free stencil to help). You can also add some morning mystery by hiding a sleigh bell and half-munched carrot in the garden to be 'discovered'. And as Father Christmas probably wanted to put his feet up for five minutes, leave something heavy on the sofa overnight to make a dent "where he plonked his big bottom".
- New. Start the day in style with a special 'North Pole breakfast'. The idea is that kids come down one morning to see an unashamedly Christmassy spread laid out.
Think pancakes shaped like snowmen with raisins for eyes, toast cut into reindeer or 'candy canes' made from slices of banana and strawberry. This £2 Frozen II cereal from Asda was greeted with great excitement in our house. Or how about these £1 Christmas tree crumpets (also from Asda)? You could even serve some hot chocolate, depending on how hyped you want to them to get.
- Give back with a 'reverse Advent calendar'. Why not help restock food banks by making a 'reverse Advent calendar'? The idea is that instead of opening a door, each day your child helps you put food aside in a box to be given away to those in need. (Even if you've missed a few days of Advent, you could start this any time.) Once finished, take your donations along to a food bank.
Call your local one to check which goods are most needed. The Trussell Trust is one of the biggest food bank charities in the UK, running two-thirds of food banks – check if it operates near you.
- Build a Gingerbread house. Kids will delight in building a Hansel and Gretel-style gingerbread house together, then covering it in marshmallows and dolly mixtures. You can do it from scratch by following a recipe online, or Morrisons has a kit for £4. Alternatively, just grab some cheap digestives and icing sugar, then do your own thing.
- Spot Santa's sleigh whizz through the stars – thanks to Nasa. To younger eyes, Nasa's International Space Station can look a lot like Father Christmas as it streaks across the night sky (clouds permitting). See when it's likely to be passing overhead – the schedule for Christmas should appear around the second week of December.
There's also a nifty free site for your little ones to watch Santa's progress on Christmas Eve. Log on to NoradSanta.org.
- Start a fun Christmas tradition with 'elf on the shelf'. The 'elf on the shelf' is a tradition where you perch an elf on, well, the shelf... to report back to Santa on kids' behaviour. The idea is every night you construct scenarios for the children to discover in the morning. One night the elf might play Twister with other toys, the next she might write her name on the sink in toothpaste.
You can pick up elves cheaply at pound shops or on eBay, and Pinterest is awash with ideas for different scenarios. Don't spend money to create scenes – just google for ideas on how to use what you already have at home. A big warning: the downside is you'll be leaping out of bed at midnight remembering that you haven't hidden it yet.
- Bust boredom by making your own Christmas decs and cookies. There's no need to spend a fortune on transforming your place into a John Lewis ad.
String up popcorn or make paper chains in jolly colours (pound shops often sell kits to make it a little easier). Alternatively, cut out snowflakes, create tree toppers out of loo roll tubes or cut up old Christmas cards to make 'baubles'. It all adds character, and Pinterest is choc-a-block with crafty ideas.
Then on Christmas Eve, why not bake some Christmas cookies for Santa?
- Wrap up for a winter forest walk. Make it a Christmas tradition to don your gloves and scarves, and head off for a winter walk in the woods. Pick up handfuls of fir cones to paint, then deck the house out with them.
- New. Camp out under the Christmas tree. Nothing heralds "it's Chrrrriistmas" like the moment you put the tree up. Celebrate by camping out in the living room under the twinkly lights that night (or any night you like).
Set up a makeshift camp with a torch, rugs, cushions and stuffed animals. Complete the experience by roasting marshmallows or s'mores.
- Create a book Advent calendar. OK, this one's not free, but can be done cheaply. Instead of the traditional chocolate, wrap 24 books to be read each evening of Advent. While we're a little late to do the full 24, there's still time to do the 12 days of Christmas if you prefer.
The Book People has some great cheap collections that are perfect for this. For example, this 10-book Christmas Collection for £12.99 (delivery is £2.95). Otherwise, library sales and charity shops are a good bet.
- Carols and Christingles. Get into the Christmas spirit by attending a traditional candlelit carol concert. Churches often have special services such as Christingles, where all the kids are given Christingle oranges with candles in them, and the lights are dimmed.
Even if you're not a practising Christian, many people enjoy taking in the atmosphere. Westminster Abbey, for example, has free carol concerts (you need to book in advance for some, at others you can just turn up).
- Mark the passage of time with a special book or video. How about getting a hardback notebook that you write in each year? Each family member writes what they want and if they've been good, their highlights for that year and their hopes and plans for the one ahead. It's fun to see how things have changed (or haven't).
Another option is to film the kids coming down the stairs or into the living room each year, then saving the videos so you can see how they've grown. When they're older, you can edit it into one big video.
- Head to school bazaars for cheap Christmas entertainment. There's no need to head to a posh department store to sit on Santa's knee. Schools' Christmas bazaars usually feature a Father Christmas grotto for a few quid.
Alternatively, check out local garden centres, often decked out in festive decorations and free to visit. Local children's centres run free events too – you'll often find these listed on Facebook's events section.
- New. Spread festive cheer with a free kindness Advent calendar. Shift the focus of Christmas back to giving this year by printing a free kindness Advent calendar (you may have missed the first few days, but no one's checking). It suggests good deeds children (or adults) can do in the countdown to the big day. Ideas include 'call a faraway relative', 'visit an elderly neighbour' and 'give kind comments to people'.
If you have a nativity set, another tradition my own little ones love is to put a piece of straw in the manger each time someone in the family does something kind. The idea is that, by Christmas Eve, baby Jesus has a nice warm bed to sleep in.
- Buy one special decoration each year. Rather than grabbing heaps of Insta-worthy tree ornaments, keep costs down by getting each child to pick out (or make) one special decoration each year. You could select an ornament linked to something that made the year special, such as starting school or learning to ride a bike. Your tree will become a lovely hodgepodge of memories.
- Give to a Christmas present appeal. To help little ones find their Christmas spirit and understand its true meaning, get them to choose a gift for a child who might not normally receive a present.
The Salvation Army runs one of the biggest schemes (contact your nearest centre for details). In London, you need to drop presents off to the Met Christmas Appeal by Thursday 12 December. There may also be local appeals near you.
See our How to do good at Christmas guide for more inspiration.
- New. Track down top free events near you, eg, Christmas singalongs and lights switch-ons. The web is a goldmine of free activities. Organisations from children's centres to churches lay on free festive happenings.
To find these, try 'Liking' on Facebook the pages of every local library, museum, wildlife trust, country park, church and children's centre. Then scroll down to events on the left-hand side of their pages. A quick squiz through my local ones found a free winter woodland trail, elf fun run and Christmas lights switch-on event.
Eventbrite often comes up trumps too. Filter by 'family and education' and 'free', then search for Christmas – it will generate a list of top activities near you. For example, I found a Christmas singalong at a library and a decoration-making session at a historic home.
- New. Get out and about with a snowman or ice sculpture trail. Many cities host festive sculpture trails, featuring art installations hidden around the sprawl – a cheap and cheerful family outing.
If you're near London Bridge, for example, see if you can spot the 12 snowmen dotted around. Bournemouth's Tree Wonderland has over 100 twinkly trees, Manchester has light sculptures and York has ice sculptures.
- New. Got a printer? Make use of free Christmas colouring pages. The internet is a treasure trove of free festive colouring pages to print off online. Check out Crayola and SuperColouring – search Christmas for thousands of options.
Also have a look for printable seasonal activities on the official sites of whatever your little'un is into, whether Disney, Puffin Books or Paw Patrol.
Of course, the best traditions are those that are special to your family. Maybe your Santa likes to munch sausage rolls on Christmas Eve or a Christmas fairy leaves random trails of glitter? We'd love to hear what YOU to do to spread the joy. Please post your traditions in the comments below.
So far, top suggestions have included gifting busy parents two hours of housework and leaving out satsumas in egg cups to be eaten overnight by cheeky elves.
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