Growing up, my family was extremely frugal. (In fact, my parents still put me to shame in this crumb saving business.) But even though we lived so simply, my parents did like to make holidays special, especially Christmas.

At Christmas time we would decorate the house and splurge on things like a Christmas tree (sometimes purchased on Christmas Eve when they were 50% off), stringing twinkling lights up around the house, and hanging decorations that were homemade or purchased during after-Christmas sales. It was an exciting time of year for my brother and me as we would get caught up in the warm fuzzies of the holiday spirit and eagerly start marking the days off the calendar until Christmas.

We never really knew what other people did for Christmas except for what we read about in storybooks: bicycles and Nintendos under the tree, sleigh rides and fancy parties, even trips to Disneyland! Of course, we rarely did any of those things. And looking back, I realize that we didn’t need any those things and to be honest, we never really missed them. Somehow, my parents were able to make Christmas fun, meaningful, and memorable – all without spending lots of money.

So instead of trying to create an exhaustive list of cheap ways to celebrate Christmas (we’ll let Pinterst do that), I thought it better to speak from Crumb Saver experience and give you a peek into how our frugal family made this holiday special for little to nothing.

1. Serving Others

We were blessed to attend a church that for many years hosted a meal to feed the homeless on Christmas Day. That meant that instead of ransacking stores for last minute gifts on Christmas Eve, we would spend hours peeling potatoes over the trash can in the church kitchen, decorating tables with pine cones and branches cut from our neighborhood, and wrapping donated toys for children. Christmas Day brought hundreds of people seeking out a hot meal and a little Christmas cheer. Sometimes I would help serve mashed potatoes and stuffing, usually my mom would volunteer me to play the violin or piano as dinner music, and often I would help pick out toys to give away. A few times I even accompanied my dad downtown where we would search out lonely people wandering the empty streets and cart them back in our van to the church.

I’ll admit it, sometimes my brother and I complained (usually because we had to play our instruments), but we always ended the day with our hearts full: Memories of the tears in a mother’s eyes when I handed her little children toys wrapped in Christmas paper, her whispering, “Thank you, I didn’t think they would get any presents this year”, and playing the violin by the crackling fire for folk wearing ragged clothes and beanies (who didn’t smell the best but always clapped no matter how good or bad I sounded). It was a deep happiness and contentment that I’m sure no Nintendo or new bicycle or trip to Disneyland could have given us.

2. Family Programs

My mom was very emphatic that whatever day we opened Christmas gifts, needed to be prefaced with a Christmas program. Being a good Asian family, my brother and I were always being wrangled into playing our instruments. So of course, this meant we had to pull out every Christmas song we knew. Violin duets and and piano solos were interspersed with family Christmas carol sing-a-longs (my dad on his harmonica since no one got off the hook) and reading passages of the Christmas story from the Bible. When relatives or friends spent Christmas with us, they were naturally required to participate too.

After the program, my brother would dress up as Santa Claus. With

an old diaper cloth safety-pinned around his chin as a beard, he would ho-ho-ho down the stairs with our gifts thrown into a pillowcase slung over his shoulder. Later, we decided it more appropriate to dress up as Wise Men and half the day and half the fun was digging around closets and through drawers to patch our costumes together. We still love pulling out the old pictures and laughing at each other! (Here’s one of the less embarrassing ones –>)

You may already have your own flavor of family traditions. But if not, take the time to find something that’s free, fun, and that you can do together. You may find like we have that the more homespun they are, the more meaningful, memorable, and priceless they become!

3. Drive-Thru Nativities

As we grew older, our church transitioned from the homeless dinner to a drive-thru nativity. It was a huge production of multiple booths with still-life pictures from the life of Christ made up of real-life costumed actors/actresses. By this time, we were in college, but if we were coming home for Christmas, we were automatically signed up for a part no matter how much we complained. It wasn’t the most pleasant job wearing glued on beards and itchy headdresses, kneeling in scratchy hay for hours in the freezing cold trying not to cough, sneeze, scratch, or sway while hundreds of cars drove by taking pictures of us. But secretly we did think it was kind of fun after it was all over (if my mom reads this, you know what we’ll be doing every Christmas for the next millennia!).


Al and I as Joseph and Mary

You may not have the opportunity to pose as a Mary or Joseph, shepherd or sheep, but driving through one of these is a free activity that you can find in just about any city and is a good way to help us remember the true reason we call this season Christmas.

4. Christmas Lights

Of course, one of the classic, most inexpensive Christmas traditions is to drive around viewing Christmas lights. Or as Al describes it: Watch everyone else’s electricity bill go through the roof. As you would guess, our Crumb Saver instincts make us recoil in horror from stringing up thousands of blinking lights, setting up lighted topiary reindeer, or hoisting an animated Santa Claus on our roof (stay away from the solar panels!). But if you don’t mind burning a little gas driving around town, you can usually find a list of your local top neighborhoods/houses to visit and enjoy watching their electric meters spin like crazy. Between these places and shopping malls, we usually got quite a good dose of the Christmas spirit!

What do you do to make your Christmas special without breaking the bank? We’d love to hear your ideas so maybe we can incorporate them into our Christmas too! Share with us in the comments!