12 ways to create holiday magic for less than $15

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Holiday decorating, megasales, plays and recitals, concerts, parties and charitable events — it’s easy to let the chaos of the holiday season snowball your spirit of peace and frugality.

It seems as if a new theory of motion gets set: The faster you move, the more places you go; the more places you go, the more you spend. Christmas morning catches you breathless and relieved that the season is nearly over. You sink exhausted into the sofa to unwind, refusing to face what you spent this season. That’s for next month.

Whoa, Dasher and Dancer! You can keep the holiday magic in your home and schedule without breaking Santa’s bank and zapping the reindeers’ strength. Just concentrate on “season” — as in, you don’t have to get everything done in one day for one day.

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Go ahead, grab your calendar and pen. Write in those “must-do” events, then sit back and read.

1. First gifts of the season

Trimming the tree together is already a cherished family tradition in most homes. After the lights and garland is strung, everyone eagerly unwraps their favorite ornaments, homemade and purchased, to hang on the tree.

This year, when you are replacing or adding to your ornament collection, make it a special occasion. Buy or make an ornament especially for each family member and present them as the first gifts of the season — all decked out in gift wrap and bows.

2. Party in a box

Winter brings snowstorms, and snowstorms bring families together in confined spaces, aka — cabin fever. So along with your other snowstorm preparations, create a Christmas party in a box. Wrap up a large box with a lid in seasonal paper, add a bow, and fill it full with craft supplies to make an assortment of Christmas decorations. Think coloring books, construction paper, stamps, stickers, glitter, glue and scissors. Consider clipping craft ideas from magazines or store catalogs or printing online ideas for things they can make independently.

The Oriental Trading Co. is the perfect online stop for buying inexpensive holiday craft kits just right for kids. Do you remember cutting and pasting red and green construction paper strips into paper chains? The Oriental Trading Co. even sells pre-cut and gummed paper strips ready to form paper chains for only $4.99.

3. Secret Santas on the loose

Santas are not just on the street corners with this activity. Everyone is a Santa and works on cheerful giving and thoughtfulness. Family names go into a drawing with each person picking a name — and keeping it a secret. During the month, everyone is a secret Santa, doing kind things for the other without getting caught.

On Christmas morning, the secret Santas will be revealed.

Or, if you have a large family and plan on getting together for the holidays, organize a gift exchange. Parents save money because they only have to purchase one gift, which should fall within a pre-determined price range. After hours of swapping, everyone will have a gift to take home.

4. Special thank-you notes

For some families, putting up Christmas lights is a tradition that begins on Thanksgiving weekend. It’s labor-intensive, but the brilliant displays lighting up the neighborhood skies are worth the effort.

Take the time to thank the families that put up lights. Engage your children to create handmade holiday postcards from blank index cards or use a computer printing program to generate seasonal postcards. Whenever you’re out enjoying the lights and decorations in your community, take along a pen and paper to note the addresses of your favorite displays. When you get home, add a personal “thank you” for the beautiful lights to the postcards, address and pop them in the mail.

5. Throw a film festival

Plump up the pillows and snuggle in to watch a holiday movie together. Whether you choose a favorite from your childhood, a classic or a new program, just make sure you serve some movie-theater treats. You might even string together a traditional popcorn garland for the tree at the same time. For a festive twist, add in cranberries (or red pompoms) for color.

You could rent your favorite movie from a video store and pay around $4.95 per rental. While you’re looking, check to see if the store has the same movie for sale — if it’s an old movie, you may find a pre-viewed copy available to buy for the same price as renting. Then you don’t have to waste gas and potential late fees driving the movie back, and you have something to watch on future holidays. Or, simply switch on the television, which offers plenty of holiday fare as Christmas approaches. You can check out what’s showing tonight, or schedule in a movie night for this coming week.

6. Sticky, gooey edible fun

What is more inviting than the sugary aroma of gingerbread? Playing with it, of course! This year create a delectable gingerbread house as a clan, then arrange your masterpiece as a table centerpiece.

For a recipe from scratch, go to Gingerbreadlane.com. Before you begin, gather an array of decorating supplies, such as candy canes, candies, nonpareils, wafers and pretzels. Yummy — nibbling is half the fun!

Try creating a new building design every year. Just in case there’s no Michelangelo in the bunch to come up with a new floor plan, check out Paige Gilchrist’s book “Making Great Gingerbread Houses: Delicious Designs from Cabins to Castles, from Lighthouses to Tree Houses.”

If you’d love to get your hands sticky but just lack time, don’t sweat it. The cookie and baking gurus at Wilton Industries have pre-baked and assembled kits. These $10 kits can be purchased online.

7. Bountiful basket of reading

Gather all your favorite holiday books together in a basket tucked into a living room nook. In the evening, light candles, turn on Christmas tree lights and — read. It’s so simple.

You don’t even need to buy new books, you can head over to the library to round out your selection. Try the classic, “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens.

Or, go online to AllThingsChristmas.com, where you’ll find Christmas stories, music, legends and traditions. Have your kids ever wondered why we hang up stockings, decorate trees, place poinsettias by the hearth or invite Santa to come down our chimneys? Print out these legends, roll them up like scrolls tied with red or green ribbon, and place them in your basket.

8. Christmas cookie swap

More than one holiday season has been started with sweet intentions to bake mounds of goodies. But between shopping, holiday programs and parties, you couldn’t squeeze in the time to bake. Well, take heart, you’re not alone! This is why hosting a Christmas cookie swap is so much fun — and convenient. You’ll bake just one recipe, net a variety of baked goods, and save money by not letting products go stale.

Invite a small group of friends who each bake six dozen of their favorite holiday treat. Each friend keeps one dozen and comes to your house bearing the rest, along with five copies of the recipe. Have baking tins or boxes lined with foil or tissue ready to hand out to your friends, and begin exchanging. You’ll all go home happy!

9. “Froehliche Weihnachten,” “Lystig Jul” and “Joyeux Noëll”

Research how families celebrate Christmas in another country and enjoy their traditions this year. The Internet is a wealth of information where you can find out the traditional holiday decorations, prepare a meal or dessert, play a game or share a legend from their country. An excellent source of recipes from around the world is RecipeHound.com. Just scroll down the left navigational bar for the country you’re researching.

10. Visit one holiday display

Don’t even attempt to see it all — just one. You might go see a living nativity scene, a singing tree, Santa Claus, a local play or choir. Check out local newspapers, local parenting magazines or the chamber of commerce for schedules of seasonal community events taking place. Get dressed up and take the family out on a date. A dinner out is nice, but a stop by the coffee shop for a latte, hot chocolate or cider is just as special.

11. Baby-sitting exchange

Every couple who has children has a circle of friends that includes parents with children, too. So why not exchange nights where you baby-sit each other’s kids, so everyone has the opportunity to shop without the children in tow. You save baby-sitting money and return home refreshed — or at least less stressed.

12. Have a snowball fight!

Act like a kid for an afternoon. It’s really invigorating. Make snow angels, build a snowman, go sledding or ice skating.

No snow? Don’t let living in the sunny South stop you. Head over to the beach and build a “snowman” out of sand, just gather enough sea shells for eyes, buttons and mouth. Bring along your carrot nose, scarf, hat, mitts and twigs.

Snap a picture and use it for a Christmas card, if anything it’ll make your northern relatives a tad envious!