How To Celebrate the Holidays Without Buying Your Kids a Bunch of Gifts

Is it possible to celebrate the spirit of the season without consumerism? Turns out you actually can have a gift-free holiday season—without inciting war at home.

Are you one of those parents who started your holiday countdown—and list of what to buy everyone in your family—weeks or months ago? If so, you're not alone. After all, those Black Friday deals can help your family budget stretch a bit further. But what if you didn't buy your kids a bunch of gifts? Is it possible that, with holiday gifts (much like with birthday parties) there's another way—one that might even instill in those kids gratitude, generosity, and mindfulness?

Is it possible to still celebrate the spirit of the season without consumerism? Here are some ideas on how to have a gift-free holiday season that your kids will actually love.

Why You Should Consider a No-Gift Holiday

Sure, there are a few people who truly enjoy the emotional labor of finding the perfect present for all their loved ones—that, and figuring out where to store all these gifts afterwards. But there are plenty of parents who would happily skip the whole hassle—and maybe that includes you.

After all, for caregivers, the time leading up to the holiday gift-giving season is often fraught with money concerns along with worries about spoiling the kids. And after the holidays? That time can be filled with pure annoyance at all the extra stuff your kids likely didn't need (and perhaps didn't want) that you will hopefully KonMari away later in the year—which, by the way, is more labor for you as the parent. It's an endless cycle that is bad for the environment, bad for your wallet, and bad for your mental health.

No-gift holidays can be the perfect antidote.

Steph Lee, M.D., MPH, FAAP

Kids may not remember the toys they receive, but no matter the age, they will remember the way they felt during the holidays.

— Steph Lee, M.D., MPH, FAAP

Skipping gifts doesn't only let you and your family focus more mindfully on the spirit of the season (and for many families, help focus on the more original/religious aspects of their own holiday traditions); it can significantly lower financial stress, too. Plus, according to a 2021 Bankrate survey, parents of children under 18 (44%) are more likely than their non-parent (35%) and parents with grown kids (30%) peers to feel anxious because of supply-chain issues—both in terms of delayed shipping and in terms of inflated prices due to lack of inventory.

If taking even a minor worry off the table is going to help you get through the holiday season during a particularly difficult year, why not?

And no, you don't have to worry about your kids feeling stiffed. "Kids may not remember the toys they receive, but no matter the age, they will remember the way they felt during the holidays," says pediatrician Steph Lee, M.D., MPH, FAAP. "If you don't have the budget for crazy expensive gifts, don't worry; be a good parent by creating long-lasting, happy memories."

An image of a boy with a wreath around him.
Getty Images.

How To Celebrate the Holidays Without Presents

If you do decide to celebrate the holidays with no gifts (or at least, a lot fewer) this year, make sure you properly prepare your kids ahead of time.

"There are a variety of reasons you may choose this as a parent, so help your children to understand your reason," explains Keri Turner, PsyD. "This may be difficult for children that are already accustomed to receiving many gifts on the holidays, so be sure to validate how this change may be difficult, and be sure to make the day important and special in different ways."

You can create new traditions that reinforce the values you actually want in your children. Here are a few fun ways you can mark the season without over-buying—and without being a killjoy.

Do an activity together as a family

On the day of (or on the days leading up to) the holiday, you can bake, go hiking or on walks, play party or board games, decorate cookies and gingerbread houses, put together puzzles—whatever! Just do it together, and on purpose.

"It got easier for us to be less materialistic as the children grew older," says homeschooling mom Jean Hong. "We bake, watch holiday movies, look at holiday lights outside on our walk. Those seemingly minor things are what they have said that makes their holiday special—plus spending time relaxing at home with family."

Let your kids teach you what they enjoy

Does your child love Minecraft or Roblox? Or love a show or particular hobby? Be a "student" of your child and boost your family's mental health by doing what Jeanie Y. Chang LMFT, CCTP, CMHIMP describes as "indulging them in the activities and hobbies they enjoy."

Chang adds that quality time is more essential than ever before. "Learn more about your kids, especially as you're doing the things they enjoy. Your kids will recall this when they're adults, and in turn follow that legacy."

Volunteer together as a family

The holiday season also traditionally marks the time when families try to give back to their communities. Discuss with your children the causes and issues that are close to their hearts and find ways you can volunteer together as a family. Perhaps your family will like it so much that you can incorporate volunteerism into your lives on a more regular basis than just during the holidays.

"To help cultivate the spirit of giving, usually we do a type of giving or angel tree thing within the community," says mom of three Scout Chanlin. "One gift per kid, and try to match to their age range."

Holiday movie marathon

There are so many amazing and timeless holiday movie classics; go on a movie marathon binge with the whole family. Or maybe you're not a fan of traditional Hollywood holiday movies; start your own themed movie marathon instead! Whatever the reason, cozy up in blankets, grab a bunch of snacks, and enjoy the entire day coming up with new catch phrases they can repeat ad infinitum.

Make your presents

If a holiday season without presents sounds too sad, consider exchanging homemade gifts instead. Your kids can bake cookies, make salt dough ornaments, or draw a picture for each other. And personally, I think heartfelt letters talking about what you love about your kids or their strengths count as homemade. Speak (and write) joy and beauty into your children's lives.

Alternative Holiday Traditions

Ultimately, the holidays are a time to pause and remind us to make sure our kids feel special and loved. Of course, our children are always special and loved, regardless of the time of year, but it's a little easier to find time to show it when employers give holiday time off and the whole world seems to slow, for just a little while.

While presents are one way many of us try to demonstrate our love, there's lots more we can do that doesn't involve spending an arm and a leg on material items.

Focus on experiences

Even though the experts keep saying it, we seem to keep forgetting: Things come and go, but experiences stay in our memories. Go to a free holiday show together, go camping in the snow, or maybe choose that holiday time off to take a budget-friendly trip.

Entrepreneur Lizz Porter has had her fair share of loss; last year she lost her father-in-law, her grandmother-in-law, and her house burned down in the River Fire in Northern California. "We decided we need to switch things up because we've had so much loss, so we're making a bunch of changes," she says. Porter explains that she and her family are now "making all the decorations for our tree...and traveling on Christmas Day."

Create something beautiful with your kids

Because Chanlin moved last year and her kids keenly felt the transition pains, she started a new tradition with her kids. "We went to a local beach and I asked everyone to pick four rocks," she said. "I bought acrylic paint pens and leather string, and had everyone decorate their rocks and we gave them to each other."

Dedicate a day to each child

One way to celebrate a kid and make them feel special is to dedicate a day to them. This is the preferred favorite for Marcie Beigel, Ed.D. BCBA-D. "On that day, you eat their favorite meals, play their favorite games, and visit their favorite places," she says. "The day is filled with stories of their successes and compliments to remind them of all the good they have done over the past year."

Dr. Beigel adds that if you're still worried that it's not enough, you can take pictures of the magical moments, print and frame them, and have that be the gift.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles