Updated on 09.29.17

Family Traditions: What Children Really Want for Christmas

Trent Hamm

While I recuperate, I’ll be sprinkling in a few guest posts from some of my favorite personal finance bloggers. This is a guest post from J.D. Roth, who writes about smart personal finance at Get Rich Slowly.

Every year, people lament the commercialization of Christmas, yet few are willing to do anything about it. Christmas displays now appear in August. Black Friday’s mad rush only grows madder. But, as Trent has noted, gifts that matter don’t come from Wal-Mart.

Unplug the Christmas machine
My wife and I take pleasure in creating homemade Christmas gifts, as do many of our friends. But even these are secondary to the time we spend “playing Santa”, driving around making holiday deliveries to the people we know. As we chat on porches or sit in living rooms, sipping hot cocoa and fawning over children, it’s the bonds of friendship that are important — not the gifts.

In fact, I believe it’s rituals like our Christmas delivery that form the heart of a meaningful season. Traditions add layers of texture to your life which last not just during the holidays, but throughout the entire year.

My public library carries a great book about this subject, and I borrow it every year just before Thanksgiving. Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli urges readers to escape the commercialism of the holiday season, to make it a “joyful, stress-free” time for the family.

The four things children really want for Christmas
In a chapter entitled “The Four Things Children Really Want for Christmas”, the authors write:

As early as the age of four or five, [children] can lose the ability to be delighted by the sights and sounds of Christmas, only to gain a two-month-long obsession with brand-name toys. Suddenly, all they seem to care about is how many presents they will be getting and how many days are left until they unwrap them.

1980 Gates Christmas - Tiff and Kris

Many parents find it a challenge to create a simple value-centered Christmas in the midst of all the commercial pressure. But the task is made much easier when parents keep in mind the four things that children really want for Christmas.

Robinson and Staeheli argue that children don’t really want clothes and toys and games. The four things they actually want are:

  1. A relaxed and loving time with the family. Children need relaxed attention. During the holidays, normal family routines are temporarily set aside for parties, shopping, and special events. It’s important to slow down and spend quality time with your kids.
  2. Realistic expectations about gifts. Kids enjoy looking forward to gifts and then having their expectations met. The key is to manage their expectations. By educating them about what “Santa” can afford, and is willing to give, it’s possible to prevent disappointment on Christmas morning.
  3. An evenly-paced holiday season. The modern Christmas season starts months before December 25th, when the first store displays go up. Things end with a bang on Christmas day. The authors suggest beginning the season late in the year instead. Get out the Christmas music on December 15th. Pick out a tree on the following weekend. Schedule some low-key family events during Christmas week. Stretch the season to New Years Day.
  4. Reliable family traditions. When I talk to my friends about what Christmas was like when we were Children, it’s not the gifts that we remember. We recall the things we did as a family. I remember sleeping next to the tree every Christmas eve, but never being able to catch Santa in the act. I remember seeing the cousins. I remember decorating the trailer house. Your kids will remember the traditions, not the gifts.

That last point is so important: it’s the traditions that make this season special, not the gifts.

Holiday traditions
Lynnae from Being Frugal recently produced a video highlighting one of her family’s traditions. “To count down the days until Christmas, I wrap up 24 of our favorite Christmas storybooks…Every night before bed, my children get to pick out one book from the stack, and we’ll read it before bed.” It’s like an Advent calendar made up of books!

When I was a boy, one of my favorite traditions was listening to The Cinnamon Bear, an old-time radio program broadcast by a local station every evening at 7 p.m. This was a pre-bed ritual for years, and one I treasure to this day.

I know that toys and the games were important to me when I was a child. As an adult, however, the only present that I actually remember was my Evil Knievel Super Stunt Set. All of the other toys are forgotten. But the memories of cooking, cousins, and Christmas lights still remain.

Wherever you are and whatever you do this holiday season, I wish you the very best — Merry Christmas.

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  1. As a lad I always got more presents than a cousin, we had many philosophical debates about why Santa loved me more. Thankfully thats all sorted out now (Santa ran out of the good stuff by the time he got to her rural county). Or it might have been a dad launching his own business.

    As I’ve become an old fart in my 20s I’ve looked forward more and more to seeing my extended family than getting presents. Though I must say I hope Santa brings me Lego Star Wars for the Wii.

  2. Scordo.com says:

    I think the family tradition part is vital – seeing that getting together with family is important will encourage kids to keep in contact with cousins, friends, and family in general.

    The social aspect of the holiday season may be one of the most important byproducts of celebrating events on the same day each year!

    My two cents.


  3. Kathy says:

    I just want to say I read your blog everyday and enjoy it very much. Hope your feeling better soon.

    FYI I am 37 years old and I still have my Evil Knievel Super Stunt set( minus the doll, and mine was his sister who wore pink.) It is one of the few toys that I remember and it still works great. It went through my little brother and my two kids who are now in high school and now my brothers two kids.

  4. Matt says:

    Only if you’ve been good, weakonomist :-D

  5. dana says:

    We moved when our son was in high school and stopped our Christmas Eve tradition of having Mexican food and all our family and friends over. This year he asked if we could start the tradition again. He said it was his favorite part of Christmas. Who knew??? So we will once again have Mexican food on Christmas Eve.

  6. Trent, your awareness and intent to create Christmas experiences will provide your children with wonderful memories. I like your emphasis on family traditions. They provide comfort and assurance for your children. I can tell you work hard to strike a balance during the holidays. Congratulations on doing things that enrich the connections within your family.

  7. Teaching kids about money at an early stage can give them a better financial start and this article shows how Christmas can bring that opportunity. Loved the video clip.
    A Dawn Journal

  8. matt @ Thrive says:

    As usual, you and I mostly agree, JD. I particularly think the emphasis on tradition is the key, as it actually loops back on an earlier point: expectations. There is a lot of good research (and plenty of common sense) that shows us that having our expectations met is an important part of satisfaction. Perhaps not ecstatic happiness, but satisfaction.

    Traditions are just another form of this: they tell us what to expect, and how and when to expect it. That’s a comfortable place not just for kids, but for all of us.

    In an overall way, I think it is always worth thinking about what any symbolic act (like gift giving) means. Thrive actually has a recent blog about that:


  9. prodgod says:

    I know this isn’t for everyone, but one of the best things we ever did was get rid of TV a few years ago (yes, we still watch videos and DVD’s). An unexpected fringe benefit is that when my children are asked what they want for Christmas, they usually can’t think of anything. Seems that most of the avarice was coming from TV.

    I know this will sound outrageous to many, but we rarely spend more than a few dollars on our kids at Christmas. They get a few gifts from grandparents and aunts/uncles and they’re more than happy with that. We seem to be the only house on the block whose garbage can is not overflowing after Christmas.

  10. Anastasia says:

    My favorite Christmas memories revolve around our Christmas tree :) Mom used to let me pick them out, and we ended up with a lot of “Charlie Brown” trees. But they were all beautiful.

  11. Puissance says:

    My family has never had a Christmas tree in the house before, but we would see presents on our beds once we woke up. It was very exciting indeed, but after a few weeks, the novelty dwindles and the toys sit around the house, adding to the clutter.

    We now have a tradition of playing a game of Monopoly. We rarely sit together for several hours during the year, so this game of Monopoly has been a good tradition.

  12. liv says:

    We stopped buying for EVERYONE, and now just get something for our parents, and do a name-drawing for one “child” (as we’re all adults now) in the family…including in-law’s! we still love opening at least 1 gift at christmas, but we are happy with the small simplification.

  13. Saver Queen says:

    Love this article. My favourite traditions as a kid were putting up the tree together, baking cookies with my mom, having my dad read us Christmas stories, renting our favourite christmas movies and listening to the same Kenny Rogers christmas album. My favourite gifts were always the homemade coupons my dad made to spend time together. This year I am making homemade gifts for almost everyone. The others will get donations in their honour or just a simple card (mutually agreed upon decision). I am buying only two people store-bought presents this year. And what a relief! My best strategy has just been staying out of the stores. I do need to buy a few stocking stuffers, but I will do it by shopping locally at the stores in my neighbourhood, with cash ($25 limit).

  14. Battra92 says:

    Honestly, I hate that my family won’t cut back on the gifts at all. I try to explain that it’s not what Christmas is about. I am told by my sisters that I am cheap.

    My favorite part of Christmas would have to be the special treats. Chex Mix, little h’ors deurves, silly expensive crackers and stuff.

    My favorite Christmas memory was in 1996 when on Christmas Eve at my grandmother’s house (who passed on a few years ago) when most of my family was gathered around the TV with an Atari 2600 we got at a garage sale the summer before. We played Pac-Man, Bowling, Donkey Kong etc. It was a blast!

    We found the home video of it and it was quite nice to have those memories again. Honestly, I’d rather just do that. Perhaps I will suggest a video game event for the Eve on my Wii or something.

  15. Wendy says:

    It isn’t an issue this year (my son is under 1 yo), but I can’t decide what to tell him about santa when he gets older.

  16. A JD post on Trent’s site…world are colliding! My family did the lottery thing too, where everyone would have one person in the family assigned and that would be the only gift you needed to buy. Definitely made life a lot easier.

  17. tiffany says:

    My son is 4 years old and we’re trying to start new traditions for him. Since he was 2 years old, he’s helped us decorate the Christmas tree while we watch a Christmas movie or cartoon. And he loves to help me bake cupcakes or holiday shaped cookies. Hopefully we can create more so when he gets older, he’ll be able to pass on the tradition. My parents didn’t have holiday traditions but we always had huge family get-togethers which is what I love about the holidays.

  18. Scotty says:

    I completely agree with this article. Remembering 10 or 15 years back, I can barely remember what gifts were given to me by whom – it’s the time spent with family and related activities that mean the most.

  19. Jane says:

    I do the “books countdown” in my classroom. I wrap enough Christmas, Hanukkah, & Kwanzaa books so that each student can open one book during the season. I do have to double up some days and read two stories- especially with a larger class. I find that the children really need some down time at school during the holidays. This story time allows us to relax for just a bit each day. Also, it’s a way of addressing the holidays without really teaching them.

  20. 144mph says:

    I’ve got to say that as I’ve gradually become less and less consumerist over the years my appreciation of the holidays has increased substantially.

    For a while, it was about gifts and presents, nothing more. Then, for a few years during college, it was about getting hammered-drunk with relatives and some free swag.

    Now, it’s about enjoying the atmosphere and, to be honest, deriving a small, sick pleasure from watching the donkeys stress out about finding ‘the perfect gift’.

  21. Shannyn says:

    I would highly recommend everyone check out the book, or get the DVD of “The Corporation,” at your local library (or rent it?)

    There is a whole chapter dedicated to the corporate mindset when it comes to marketing toys to children, and the “nag effect.” Parents can establish “want from need” and want to only provide kids with “needs,” and maybe a few “wants.” Commercials now are geared at teaching children to nag parents and convince them that these toys are “needs,” and other tactics. It’s pretty intense! The video/book does a much better job at showing the power of the marketing, it’s worth a read or watch!

    I think it was also a great suggestion that Xmas should be celebrated a bit later, and enjoyed through New Year’s. This teaches kids that Christmas isn’t over as soon as the gifts are opened, but rather, the presents are a perk, but family time is the focus.

    Great post!

  22. Anna says:

    Wendy, if you are not sure what to tell your one-year-old next year about Santa Claus, this worked well when my children were young:

    When they began to notice all the fluff and hype about Santa Claus, and ask what it was about, we told them that Santa is a happy game people play at Christmas time. That way, we could enjoy Santa, stockings, etc. at a low-key level without having to lie now, confess later, and set the kids up for a big disillusionment. (We did caution them not to get into discussions with their friends who were “believers.”) Also, we made it clear that the Santa game involved only their stockings, and that the presents under the tree came from parents and other relatives.

  23. BonzoGal says:

    Very true, Trent. I do only remember the past events of the holidays, not the gifts. The most fun of the holidays for me, now, is cooking for friends and relatives. Making cookies with my mom is one of my all-time favorite memories!

  24. Curt says:

    What children realy want is time with their parents.

  25. Gretchen says:

    As far as telling kids about Santa, I’ve found my kids will believe even if I tell them (gently) its not really true. Some kids just insist!

    We love the family tradition of walking around the neighborhood to see the Christmas lights at night. We do it many times each Christmas. They are still young enough to think it is cool to walk at “night” and of course they love the lights!

    I love to get them lots of things for Christmas. They get about two big gifts from “Santa” (like a board game or bicycle) and lots of stocking stuffers. Christmas and birthdays are basically the only times they get toys though.

  26. bethh says:

    I’ve got some great traditions going in my life around the holidays: in the city I used to live in, we’re going on the 13th annual cookie party. I fly up there just to keep my hand in (not the most frugal, no, but it’s important for me to stay a least peripherally involved in all of those lives).

    At home, my siblings and I make an elaborate Christmas Eve dinner. Again, this isn’t the cheapest thing going, but the three of us split the cost, and since we’re doing all the work, it’s not that bad.

    Finally, I’ve started a pumpkin carving party tradition here in my new city, which is a fun mid-autumn ritual.

    All of these activities are about togetherness and experience, not about stuff, which is definitely in the spirit of this post!

  27. Bill M says:

    My daughters firmly believe in Santa and there is nothing wrong with that.

    Its how you treat them and how you educate them about life that will set their character.

  28. sylrayj says:

    Our son couldn’t tolerate the Big Bang of Christmas day – it was too too much. So now we stretch it – we slow down the tree decorating, so we have more time to become accustomed to the season’s arrival, and we do the 12 Days of Christmas.

    We have 12 big gift bags, and into each goes a gift for each of the kids and one for a parent/the family. It sounds like a lot, but there are dollar store items in there, as well as the gifts from family and Santa, and sometimes a toy that just wasn’t really noticed through the year. We also add a book and a ‘forgotten toy’ for each kid, so even if they got a shirt from Grandma, there’s a toy to play with.

    New Year’s Eve is the 7 swans a-swimming, so we have a ‘beach party’ for a few friends. We turn up the heat, dress in beach wear, have fruit punch and play with balloons and stuff. It’s my favourite part of the year. :)

  29. Scribbles says:

    We love our Christmas traditions! We ALWAYS have bacon sandwiches for breakfast on Christmas day, Santa brings summer pjs (it is NZ summer) that we change into when we open our santa sacks, and it’s always santa sacks first, breakfast and then presents from under the tree… it used to kill me when I was a kid to have to wait that long.
    A tradition I’m glad fell by the wayside was multiple “Christmases” on the same day. I have a distinct memory of rolling around on my maternal grandparents lawn in agony at about age 7 because I’d stuffed myself there even after a huge lunch with paternal grandparents. The holiday now gets stretched out over multiple days (we’re having a big boxing day party at ours this year) and it’s more relaxed.

  30. Jillian says:

    Lynnae’s “advent” books idea is a great one! Probably would be even more frugal if she didn’t use so much sticky tape to wrap them, though :-D

  31. Battra92 says:

    Wendy, I don’t have kids but I think Anna has the right idea as to what I would do. I know my dad kind of wanted us to be believers in Santa but in all honesty, I was too smart for that.

    I know my parents always made a point to remind us that Santa Claus was not in the same league as Jesus and that Saint Nicholas only gave gifts on Christmas because the Magi gave gifts to the baby Jesus.

  32. Denise says:

    As a kid, we had little money but I never knew it. My favorite thing was taking turns to sleep with a stuffed Santa and opening the Advent calendar each December day. My mother is German, so the tree went up Christmas eve or a tiny bit earlier and stayed up until Jan.6. We also listened to the Nutcracker in the evenings around Christmas. We also got no desert treats after Thanksgiving and got fancy treats Christmas eve and thru the Holiday. It created a frame around the Holiday. Also, the good christmas kid movies were looked foreward to, but one had to be really GOOD. No other tv was allowed.

  33. SS says:

    As a Kid, my uncle dressed up in Santa suit and took presents to house on Christmas Eve. My favorite toy that he bought me was the three bears.
    We then started having christmas dinner at my uncles
    house and we would have to stay up until midnight christmas eve. and we would all open presents. It
    had a great childhood in a lot of ways. I do agree
    that it is a balance of a little something, food,
    family, music, christmas lights, tree, board games,
    pool. Have a great christmas all!!!!

  34. jess says:

    Wendy- I also faced that dilemma. my son is now turning 3 and ater much deliberation I have taught him that Santa Claus is not real. We dont make a big deal out of Christmas anyway, & although I do love to buy him a few small things, what I am striving to teach him is that it’s a time to give rather than receive. we partake in a thing called the Tree of Joy where he can choose a card from orphaned/abandoned 3 year olds in orphanages/foster care who have given their christmas wish to “Santa” and we buy those and wrap them and give them to this organisation which then passes them on to the children.

    to me, this is a value I want to instil in him, not an idea that x-mas is a time for him to amass things he doesn’t need.

    I also find that avoiding toy stores and tv works wonders as he has no unrealistic expectations set up from over-exposure to commercialism.

  35. Melissa. says:

    I clamored for toys I saw on TV as loudly and insistently as any kid, but looking back, I barely remember any of them. And those gifts I do remember tended to be simple toys (that I could adapt to new ways of playing with them) and books.

    One of the most memorable toys I got was a barn my maternal grandmother made out of cardboard boxes. She only meant for it to be a fun way of wrapping the “real” gift, which was a couple of Breyer horses and some other small things, but I kept and played with it for years.

    What I do remember best about Christmas was doing holiday craft projects with my mom (we’d do themed decorations for the tree each year), as well as making dozens and dozens of Christmas cookies to give as gifts and coming up with clever ways to package them. I also remember going over to my paternal grandmother’s house every year to help her decorate her tree–digging through all the tissue paper and finding favorite ornaments from years past and figuring out where on the tree they should go was a big deal.

    I also remember my dad paying me to wrap presents because he was so lousy at it; only he and I knew what other people were getting, and I liked sharing that secret with him. I also helped my paternal grandmother wrap presents, and while she didn’t pay me I got the same thrill of being trusted with keeping a secret.

    But 99% of the stuff I got for Christmas? Long forgotten. And even back then, if you’d asked me what I liked most about Christmas, I probably would have singled out the crafts, the baking, and helping my grandmother decorate her tree.

  36. Matt says:

    I am a firm believer that Christmas has been to commercialized. I remember the days of yore when we loved to go to Grandmas house to spend time with the whole family because alot of them had moved away to other cities for jobs and such. We loved going to see all the family and to see how much the chilren had changed. Sure, I was a kid then and looked forward to the minascule presents because of tough times, But what I remember most is the family and games we played together. I am trying to instill that in my kids nows, But all I hear is “I want —– for christmas”. Why can’t we go back 30 years and remember what christmas is really for? The “FAMILY” and not commercialization.

  37. Elaine says:

    Christmas was always magical in my house. My Father put up Christmas lights outside and painted scenes of Santa and his reindeer on the front windows. We cut a tree and decorated it with ornaments from different countries and handmade ornaments and then gently layered tinsel over all the branches. We baked for weeks and the house always smelled great. My brothers and I made decorations for our rooms. Christmas Eve we read the Night before Christmas and the nativity story from St. Luke and left hot chocolate and cookies for Santa as well as a Christmas letter. We did have a lot of presents under the tree-usually one “big” gift and then books, coloring books, a big box of crayons, doll clothes or legos and craft kits. I remember a lot of the gifts I received and they were treasured-it was the only time we got toys during the year. We went to my Grandmother’s for dinner and got small gifts from our cousins, ate a big dinner and then returned home late at night. I think the best part of the holiday was all the preparation and build-up. Driving around and looking at all the lights was another fun thing we looked forward too. I don’t think you have to spend a lot to make Christmas special but there needs to be a sense of wonder and joy. MY kids love Christmas because we continued those traditions and we also “adopt” a needy family during the holidays and send gifts to soldiers-something they love to take part in.

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