If Christmas is the backdrop for some of your fondest childhood memories, you are not alone. Many people cherry-pick their very best holiday recollections and carry them into adulthood. A recent poll found that Christmas is overwhelmingly the most popular and widely practiced of all holidays. Regardless of religious affiliation, nine out of 10 people celebrate some form of Christmas.

More Money, Less Joy: Since most people cite simply spending time with loved ones as their favorite holiday activity, it's surprising that we're increasingly allocating precious resources toward activities that we don't enjoy. Statistics show that year after year, we're spending more money and time on stressful obligations that don't contribute to our holiday bliss.

Ironically, experts tell us that keeping Christmas simple makes it more magical. Our pleasant childhood memories come not from gifts, but from warm feelings or pleasant experiences. A reassuring study out of Knox College confirms that most people feel the greatest holiday joy from participating in soothing activities with loved ones. Conversely, when the focus is about gift-giving, joy plummets and stress increases. The researchers conclude: "Simply said, a focus on materialism, while perhaps beneficial for the economy, distracts people from the true meaning of the season."

Parents who want to tame modern holiday consumerism face the not-so-subtle message that only substantial amounts of money and effort bring genuine holiday satisfaction. To counter these assumptions, here are eight inexpensive suggestions for creating a meaningful holiday that your kids will hopefully pass on to their own children.

  • Exchange Stocking Letters of Appreciation: To place the focus on connections rather than on gifts, fill stockings with letters of appreciation. The letters might outline what makes each family member special. You might also mention any enjoyable memories from the previous year or recount what made you proud of the recipient. Even small children can draw a picture that expresses their appreciation. Many people keep these letters forever.

  • Enjoy a Cozy Night of Holiday Movies and Books: Host a holiday movie and book night to encourage the family activities that researchers found so important. Invite extended family and friends. Make popcorn, s'mores and hot chocolate. Snuggle up in cozy blankets or matching pajamas. (Don't forget to take photos for next year's holiday mantle.)

  • Take in Sensory Sights and Sounds: Sensory details help cement fond memories. Pile into the car, crank up the holiday music and take in the sights and sounds of the holiday. Some families visit the same destinations every year, while others like to explore new locations. Many communities, schools and organizations host holiday-themed plays, events or shows that are either free or inexpensive. Some families attend annual religious services.

  • Enjoy a Stress-Free Meal Together: Many families work hard to prepare a feast on Christmas day, so it's fun to enjoy a labor-free meal before the big day. Visit your family's favorite restaurant, order in or share a simple potluck dinner. (This tradition is also beneficial for blended families that have multiple homes to visit.) With your family at the table, use this opportunity to tell your kids about your own holiday memories. Discuss what Christmas truly means to each member of your family. The conversation may surprise, touch and reassure you.

  • Give to Others: Whether it's choosing an angel from an angel tree, making a meal for others or visiting someone who could use a lift, allow your kids to feel the spirit of giving. The winter holidays are the perfect time to remind children that it can be more meaningful and lasting to give than to receive. Even better, giving feels good while broadening your family's definition of the true meaning of Christmas.

  • Create A Sense of Wonder: Barbara Kilikevich, author of " A Mindful Christmas: How to Create a Meaningful, Peaceful Holiday ," assures families that Santa can be an important part of a Christmas, since he "represents wonder, imagination and maybe most importantly, belief." Some suggestions for enhancing a child's sense of awe: Leave ink-smudged "coal" fingerprints as proof of Santa's snack. Spray-paint red "sleigh" landing strips on the lawn. Ring sleigh bells at bedtime. Use apps to track and communicate with Santa. (Older siblings love setting up these experiences for younger kids.)

  • Make Decorating a Group Effort: It's tempting to limit holiday decorating to adults, but including the kids allows families to create a festive environment as a team. To safely include children, consider allowing them to decorate a children's tree or wreath. They can also make paper snowflakes for a larger tree or choose an ornament that reflects their accomplishments or experiences this year.

  • To demonstrate that the thought behind a gift is more important than the price tag, many families find inexpensive but creative ways to limit spending and maximize meaning. Examples include drawing names and mandating that all gifts for adults be either handmade, contributions to charity or under $10. These limitations mean that thoughtful effort goes into gift-giving, which makes the exchange much more meaningful.

Most of us want a holiday that is about "connections, family, and caring for others," says Kilikevich. "We have to stop buying into the notion that more is better and that extravagant, expensive gifts are equal to how much we care for and love one another."

Very few of us still have the possessions of Christmases past. Instead, we have lasting memories that will always warm us. With a little creativity, we can provide the same for our own families.

Here are some free or inexpensive resources to make Christmas more meaningful.

  • Stationary for Stocking Letters : This website offers free Christmas-themed stationery for your stocking appreciation letters.

  • Local Holiday Displays : Type in your address to find holiday light displays near you.

  • To Volunteer Your Time to Help Others : VolunteerMatch allows you to enter your location and interests to then be matched with organizations that could use your help. You can limit your search to opportunities that include children.

  • Santa on Norad : The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) allows your child to track Santa's whereabouts on Christmas Eve.

  • Catch a Character App : Parents can take a picture of their home and the app will insert Santa into the photo, making it appear that Santa's been caught in the act of delivering presents.

  • Kids Christmas Tree: Here is an example of a children's felt Christmas tree with removable ornaments. It can be easily customized to meet your family's needs.

  • Santa's Magic Phone Call App : On Google Play : This app allows children to receive phone calls and texts from Santa. Parents choose the content of the messages.

  • Santa's Magic Phone Call App : On iTunes : This app allows children to receive phone calls and texts from Santa. Parents choose the content of the messages.


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Author Shannon Dean's favorite Christmas gift last year was a $10 pair of vintage bobby pins that were similar to a pair owned by her grandmother.