20 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. But there are tons of 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 Home Alone. So, to inspire, here's a sackful of simple gestures and experiences to put smiles on kids' faces (and grown-ups' too).

  • Drive past twinkly streets after dark. Many Christmas lovers are really going to town this year, 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, among MoneySavers' most adored movies were It's A Wonderful Life, Elf and Home Alone. See our What's Your Favourite Christmas Film? poll for full results.
  • Read 'Twas The Night before ChristmasA lovely Christmas Eve ritual is cosying up with this lovely yuletide poem. Originally titled A Visit From Saint Nicholas, it's free on Kindle or you can print it off at TeacherVision.com. (You also can't go wrong with the Jolly Christmas Postman.) Visit your library for piles of snuggly Christmas books - if it lets you reserve for free, just search for Christmas in kids' books to bag some new releases.
  • 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".
  • Warm your cockles with homemade hot chocolate bombs. Hot chocolate bombs are spheres of chocolate stuffed with cocoa and marshmallows.

    Simply pop them in a mug and pour over steaming milk to watch them explode. These can be made cheaply at home – here's a handy tutorial.

    Alternatively, you can buy reindeer hot chocolate bombs for £1.50 from Sainsbury's or £1 from Poundland (Adding brandy to your own mug: optional).
  • Gift wrap a doorway so they can burst through on Christmas morning. Simple but effective. On Christmas Eve, tape wrapping paper over the living room or kids' bedroom doorway.

    Little ones will love bursting through the paper in the morning to get to the tree.

    If you want to save paper, consider doing this with newspaper or festive magazine pages.
  • 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 Asda has a kit for £3.50. Alternatively, just grab some cheap digestives and icing sugar, then do your own thing.
  • 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, or 'candy canes' made from slices of banana and strawberry. Or how about these £1.25 reindeer crumpets from Morrisons? 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. Once finished, take your donations along to a food bank.

    Call your local one to check which goods are most needed and what the current rules on dropping off are. 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.
  • 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 in a week or so when you search for your area.

    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'. You've probably heard of 'elf on the shelf', a tradition where an elf perches on, well, the shelf... to report back to Santa on kids' behaviour. The idea is every night the elf appears in different scenarios for the children to discover in the morning. Yet the scenarios don't need to cost anything - one night the elf might play Twister with other toys, the next she might write her name on the sink in toothpaste.

    Traditionally the elves arrive on 1 December. You can pick up elves cheaply at pound shops or on eBay, and Pinterest is awash with ideas for different scenarios. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. If you miss the start of December, there's time to do the 12 days of Christmas later if you prefer.

    The Works has some great cheap collections that are perfect for this. Check out these 10 book for £10 deals (plus £3.99 delivery). Otherwise, library sales and charity shops are a good bet.
  • 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. 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 we 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.
  • Get out and about with a wooden or ice sculpture trail. Some cities host festive sculpture trails, featuring art installations hidden around the sprawl – a cheap and cheerful family outing.

    For example, if you're near London, see if you can spot 12 sculptures as part of its Walking with The Snowmen trail, running until 5 January 2024. There's also the Aberdeen Christmas Challenge Sculpture Trail until 24 December and the Birmingham Snowdog trail (until 4 January).
  • 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, for example, Puffin Books.

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 Forum discussion 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.