Simple, easy, and budget-friendly ways to make the holidays even more spectacular for your family this year.

By Liz Callahan Schnabolk and Karen Cicero
November 10, 2020
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One thing’s for certain this year: Santa Claus is definitely still coming to town.
| Credit: Gretchen Easton

Want to deliver all the seasonal sparkle kids crave without spending a bundle or overloading your own to-do list? We have you covered! Here are simple, surprising, and low-cost ways to make the family magic happen.

Keep Them As Busy As Elves

Credit: Dane Tashima

Create Festive Food

  • Craft a Hat. Unroll a tube of thin-crust pizza dough and cut into triangles; save the scraps. Fold up bottoms to form hat cuffs. Roll scraps into balls for hat pom-poms. Spread tomato sauce over hats and dab ricotta cheese on cuffs and pom-poms.
  • Assemble a Candy-Less Cane. Arrange sliced bananas and strawberries or fresh mozzarella and tomato on a plate, alternating colors to look like a candy cane, suggests Deanna F. Cook, author of the cookbook Food Faces.

Elevate Hanukkah

To make each evening of the holiday uniquely fun and not all about presents, Everyday Jewish Mom blogger Marti Kerner themes each night. The first is Dreidel Night—her kid’s fave. This year she’s adding a cooking competition and a night to Zoom with family (because 2020). Nights for crafts, stories, games, meditation, and a big dinner round out the revelry.

Spread the Good Will

  • Try a Different Advent Calendar. Instead of giving candy each day, Susie Allison, author of Busy Toddler’s Guide to Actual Parenting, designed a 25-link paper chain with an act of kindness (bring cookies to the fire station! donate food from the pantry!) on each link.
  • Adopt a Nicer Elf. If The Elf on the Shelf isn’t your jam, meet The Kindness Elves. Rather than reporting your kid’s behavior to Santa, these cuties offer a daily do-good idea, like “Set the table.” (Order your own set from theimaginationtreestore.com, or use any figurines.)

Make Christmas Morning Full of Glee

  • Burst In. On Christmas Eve, Studio DIY blogger Kelly Mindell and her husband seal the living-room doorway with wrapping paper. “It adds to the magic that our son has to bust through it before he can see what Santa left,” she says.
  • Check the Security Cam. “Every year, my husband makes a video of Santa getting caught on our Nest cam,” says Holly Homer, author of 101 Kids Activities That Are the Bestest, Funnest Ever! The video usually catches Santa eating cookies or napping on the couch after dropping presents under the tree. (You can also use an app like Santa Spy Cam to make one.)
  • Take a Time-Lapse Video. Set a camera in front of the tree on Christmas morning and have your family exclaim, “Merry Christmas!” suggests Hello Wonderful blogger Agnes Hsu, who started the tradition last year. “It’ll be fun to stitch the clips together to show how we’ve grown,” she says.
  • Game Up the Gifts. Santa doesn’t let Bianca Dottin’s kids off easy: He leaves one toy (and clue!) under the tree and sends everyone to search for the rest. “My daughter loves reading each clue and hunting for the next gift,” says the Orlando-based lifestyle expert.

Find Jolly Entertainment

Bring Santa to Life

Getting that photo of your kid perched on the big guy’s lap may not be possible in the age of social distancing. Here are a few ways to keep the red-suit vibes strong.

  • Go Virtual. Not even Santa can escape the year of videoconferencing! Head to jinglering.com to set up a time to chat live with the man in red, or opt for a recorded message that your kids can play over and over (and over!) again. The many personalization options mean you can choose a Santa of a certain ethnicity or even one who knows sign language. Packages start at $20.
  • Get the Photo. Pop Santa or his elves right into your holiday pics with a selfie-with-Santa app (free for iOS and Android), and consider your holiday ’gram post done.
  • Throw on the Suit. There’s an entire website, SantaSuitExpress.com, dedicated to reviewing the many (and there are many) Santa-suit options available. Decide on a budget, then split one of this site’s top picks with your pod to take turns surprising each other’s kids throughout the month.
Credit: Priscilla Gragg

Ho-Ho-Ho the Whole House

Let the Kids Deck the Halls

  • Do Up Their Room. Set up a mini Christmas tree—and give your kid creative control. “Every year, we decorate my daughter’s tree with all her hair bows,” says Amanda Star, co-owner of Tig & Peach, a children’s playspace in Pelham, New York. (You can find a small faux fir at Target for under $30 to use year after year.)
  • Create a Frosty Flurry. Cut paper snowflakes and string them across the ceiling, the windows, or even a canopy bed. “It makes for the most magical place to watch holiday movies,” Mindell says.
  • Santa-fy Family Photos. “We put Santa hats on all the framed photos in our house,” Mindell adds. Her kids make tiny hats out of red construction paper and white pom-poms, then tape them to each picture.
  • Enlist the Lego. Last year, The Organized Mama blogger Jessica Litman built a menorah out of blue LEGO bricks complete with candles from LEGO flame pieces. “My kids were obsessed with adding the flames each night,” says Litman. Encourage kids to freestyle decorations, or head to lego.brickinstructions.com for directions.
  • Cast a Warm Glow. Hang a set of string lights to the underside of a dining table and drape a tablecloth over it for the coolest fort ever, suggests Lydia Diaz, who runs the Etsy shop Clever Girls Craftings.

Level Up Your Traditions

Give your go-to classic holiday activities a boost this year.

  • Caroling to Christmas Carol Karaoke. Download a karaoke app (we like Karaoke—Sing Unlimited Songs, free for iOS), and see which family member can belt out the jazziest “Jingle Bell Rock.”
  • Cookie Decorating to a Sugarplum Bake-Off. One Handy Momma blogger and DIYer Nneka Mosley likes to set up at-home cooking challenges with her fam and give them a holiday twist. “We even take turns being the judge, like on TV,” she adds. Homemade Peppermint Patties, M&M’s brownies, and Oreo truffles have come out of Christmases past.
  • Holiday Lights Drive to Illuminated Scavenger Hunt. As you scope out the neighborhood displays, turn it into a scavenger hunt, suggests Heidi Kundin, who blogs at Happiness Is Homemade. Give each family member a list of common decorations (a wreath, an inflatable Santa, a menorah in a window) and see who can check them all off first.

Films for All the Feels

Cue up your movie night with these classic holiday picks suggested by Erik Davis, dad of two and managing editor at Fandango.

Credit: Everett Collection

When you want your kid to believe for just one more year … The Santa Clause

“They’ll love imagining what it would be like if a family member had to take on the role of Santa,” Davis says.

More to stream: Miracle on 34th Street, Elf, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town

Credit: Everett Collection

When your kid is obsessed with their wish list … A Christmas Story

“The main character sees that being with family is better than getting any present,” Davis explains.

More to stream: Jingle All the Way, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Gremlins (for older kids)

Credit: Everett Collection

When you want everyone to get on the warm, fuzzy train … A Christmas Carol

“For younger kids, watch the Muppets’ version,” Davis suggests. “It shows how holiday memories help fuel us for the year.”

More to stream: It’s a Wonderful Life, Home Alone, Rudolph the Red-Nosed

Books to Hype the Big Day

Credit: Jacob Fox

5 More Sleeps ’Til Christmas

Written by Jimmy Fallon, illustrated by Rich Deas
The late-night talk-show host’s fourth children’s book captures the excitement kids feel leading up to Christmas morning. The text gives off vibes of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”: “I have to go to bed! But visions of my favorite toys keep dancing in my head.” Ages 4 to 8

Credit: Jacob Fox

Li’l Rabbit’s Kwanzaa

Written by Donna L. Washington, illustrated by Shane W. Evans
In a story about generosity and kindness, a young rabbit and his animal friends bring the community together for Karamu, a Kwanzaa feast. The final pages describe the seven principles of Kwanzaa in a kid-friendly way. Ages 4 to 8

Credit: Jacob Fox

Happy Llamakkah!

Written by Laura Gehl, illustrated by Lydia Nichols
Fun illustrations of a llama family enjoying Hanukkah traditions set the tone for this story that’s light on text but filled with warmth. Ages 3 to 5

Credit: Jacob Fox

Always Together at Christmas

Written by Sara Sargent, illustrated by Mark Chambers
You may need to adjust your family’s holiday traditions for safety, and this book—with cozy illustrations of Santa Claus wearing a mask and families unwrapping presents over Zoom—assures kids that “Christmas will always mean love, even if love feels a little different this year.” Ages 3+

Credit: Jacob Fox

Disney: Storybook Collection Advent Calendar

If your kid has whosits and whatsits galore, trade in the trinket-filled advent calendar for this nearly 2-foot-tall creation with 24 mini books. Each day, your reader-in-training will unwrap a new story featuring Disney characters, like Olaf’s Frozen Adventure and Belle to the Rescue. Ages 3+

Credit: Jacob Fox

Latkes for Santa Claus

Written by Janie Emaus, illustrated by Bryan Langdo
In one of the few holiday books about families who celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, Anna reasons that Santa must be “really tired of cookies.” She brainstorms snacks that blend her mom’s Jewish heritage with her stepdad’s traditions, landing on the recipe that’s included in the back of the book. Ages 3 to 6

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's December 2020 issue as “A Month of Merry.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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