Fun & Frugal Christmas Activities for Families


As we move into the full swing of holidays, most parents yearn for simplicity, serenity, and some quality time with their families. Come January, I so often hear the regret and guilt of parents who feel like they wasted the season frantically shopping, sending cards, decorating, and entertaining, consequently missing quiet evenings reading with their kids, watching classic Christmas cartoons, or enjoying a holiday event in the community.

I struggled with these feelings as well. I also knew if I changed my focus, then possibly my kids’ focus would shift from the all-encompassing Christmas night arrival of Santa. I read many different ideas online and in magazines but none of them seem to fit for our family.

Finally, I found an idea in the Family Fun magazine last fall. They had little paper trees and the parents hid little gifts under the tree for each day during the month of December. I liked the concept but wasn’t too hip on the little gifts every day – I was trying to get away from that exact thing! So, I decided to substitute the little gifts with family activities or special edible treats. I knew there would be some days we would have a schedule conflict and not be able to do an activity, so for those days the boys had to go on a hunt around the house for a special snack.


These homemade paper trees served as the family's centerpiece and revealed special family actitives throughout the Christmas season.

Part of our Thanksgiving weekend last year was spent making paper trees and gluing on numbers for each day of December. When Advent started, each boy took a turn after school peeking under the tree for the little sheet of paper with the activity for the night. I was pleased when the boys seemed excited about our new endeavor.

But I knew I had stumbled upon an annual tradition when I noticed the boys seemed more relaxed and less obsessed with Santa’s arrival! They were even starting to independently make suggestions for things we could do together as a family. Plus, I was a lot more relaxed and seemed to be enjoying this time before the holiday. I wasn’t spending a lot of money — these were frugal Christmas ideas.  Plus, I was doing things I enjoyed with my family and we were capturing the spirit of the season.

Wanting to be budget-minded, I tried to think of things which either didn’t cost any money or were inexpensive. I also tried to incorporate things which we already had planned into these Advent activities. One of our sons was in a play at church and after the play the church was hosting a dinner. That became our activity for that night. When we decorated our tree, it was the little surprise under the paper tree for that night. Suddenly, the ordinary things of our life became extraordinary because they were written down on a sheet of paper, placed under a paper tree, and called a “family activity”!

The Turner Boys make special cards for troops in Iraq.

It’s hard to pick my favorite frugal Christmas activity from last year. But some which stood out included a leisurely trip to the public library, followed by dinner for which we had 50% off coupons; watching Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and The Grinch with popcorn; making cards and goodie packages for soldiers overseas; and also reading the history of St. Nicholas and coloring pictures of him while eating candy canes.

Now thinking about it, the highlight for me was when we went out after dinner on a cold, snowy night, built a fire, made Gingerbread S’Mores (graham crackers slathered in peanut butter with roasted gingerbread- flavored marshmallows!), and drank hot cocoa. It was magical to sit out under the winter skies of Montana while laughing together and sharing stories.

I felt like I had been successful in my attempt to reclaim the Advent season from the commercial chaos which had invaded our home in past years. The memories of nights like this crept into many conversations over the year as the kids would say, “Oh! Remember when we roasted marshmallows outside when it snowed?!”


Quinn Turner roasting marshmallows during a special family activity.

This concept is very adaptable for every family, every budget, and every schedule. Think about activities that your family enjoys doing together and schedule them between now and Christmas. Missoula has lots of no-cost activities during this time of year or plan things to do in the comfort and peacefulness of your own home so your budget doesn’t take an unnecessary hit. For example, the Missoula Parade of Lights and the Missoula Festival of Trees both offer free or inexpensive activities for the whole family.

This weekend we pulled out our paper trees and set them up on our kitchen table. Our kids are excited and are offering suggestions for various ideas. Meanwhile I am excited because starting this week we will shift gears and focus more on quality family time, worry less about holiday chaos, spend less money, and really prepare ourselves for an enjoyable and relaxing Christmas celebration — and a frugal Christmas at that!


Erin’s got tons of tips for saving money, couponing, and sticking to a budget in her previous posts: Declutter and Donate Old Toys Before Christmas, Shop and Plan Ahead to Reduce Christmas Stress, and Teaching Money to Kids and Teens. Be sure to check out the Missoula Save it Club.

   Visit the Coupon Queen’s “Save It” archive.


Erin Eisenman-Turner is proud to be a native Missoulian. Along with her husband and three sons, they raise chickens, pigs, rabbits, and vegetables at Turner Family Farms in the Orchard Homes area. When the farm chores are done, the coupons clipped, and the blog written, you can find Erin exploring Montana, collecting antiques, and trying to maintain a well-run, happy, and organized home for her family.