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43 ways to make this year the best holiday season ever — even if money is tight

Illustration for story about how to celebrate the holidays with little or no money
(Kelly Malka / For The Times)
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Let’s face it: The holidays are going to be a bigger challenge this year, with many of us out of work or coping with isolation and grief. Because everything is upside-down, why not redirect our holiday focus from spending money to spending time?

Think about your happiest holiday memories. Most probably involve the senses — the aroma of cookies baking, the sound of children singing carols, the giddy pleasure of shiny lights — and the time spent decorating, plotting and anticipating with family and friends.

[See the full L.A. Times 2020 gift guide here.]

Writer-illustrator Susan Branch, who grew up in Reseda as the oldest of eight children, says it best in her new book, “Home for Christmas”: “The most precious gifts, the ones that last the longest, aren’t wrapped or under the tree. They’re the memories of people and places that live in our hearts forever.”

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The things that make traditions and lasting memories require time more than money. If there’s one upside to the coronavirus pandemic, sheltering at home has given us more time.

So why not make this a do-it-yourself holiday for the family? Get everyone — even the kids — to agree to homemade presents, or pledge to do their holiday shopping at secondhand stores, or draw names so that each person gets just one store-bought gift. This kind of gift-giving requires more thought than a gift card, but it’s more personal and, honestly, more pleasurable too.

Here are 43 ways you can celebrate on the cheap, start new traditions, and make this the most memorable season ever.

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Gifts

Get creative with gifts
Get creative with gifts.
(Kelly Malka / For The Times)

Gift exchanges

  • Secret Santas: Have your family members draw names from a hat. Ask each one for a list of five or 10 gifts they’d like to receive (with the understanding they’ll receive only one or two) and share those lists with the Secret Santas. Variations include gifts that are $25 or less.
  • Create a theme: Everything must be purchased secondhand (from thrift stores and estate sales) or made by hand. Or all gifts must be food- or music-related and cost less than $20.
  • Buy one big group gift: Everyone pitches in on this group gift to purchase a week in a mountain cabin, a shared golf cart or even an extra Costco membership card. Check out the list of 46 gift-exchange ideas at AllGiftsConsidered.com
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Check out our 2020 holiday book gift guide for the best non-fiction and fiction picks for literary enthusiasts on your list.

Significant others

Some mistletoe to help to make the season bright.
(Kelly Malka / For The Times)

  • Pamper with a special experience: Make a pact with your partner or spouse to give an experience this year. If your husband loves cuddling by a fire at the beach, give him a tub filled with kindling, a cozy blanket and something lovely to sip, along with a specific date for the outing. If your wife loves long walks, research the best hikes in your area and set up a date. Include a map of your destination and make a reservation at a nearby restaurant with outdoor seating.
  • Write a heartfelt letter: Give your partner or spouse a letter outlining all the reasons he or she is important to you, and be specific. The infectious way he laughs, the way her eyes catch the light, his corny jokes or her terrific sense of style. Write it on your nicest stationery and scent the envelope with his or her favorite fragrance.
  • Plan a special movie night: Find a few of your “sigother’s” favorite films (the ones he or she rarely get to watch because they’re your least favorite) and then create a movie night gift that includes popcorn or a favorite movie snack, and a printout of trivia about the actors, directors, writer or filmmaking process. Make sure you set specific dates for viewing.

Parents/siblings

Knitting a scarf for your loved one and decorating the tree.
Knitting a scarf for your loved one and decorating the tree.
(Kelly Malka / For The Times)

  • Create a photo memory book: Dig out those old family photos and create a personalized book for each of your siblings and/or your parents. Good Housekeeping reviewed some of the best photo-book makers, but you can also make copies of your treasured photos and put them into old-fashioned photo albums. Just be sure to purchase albums with acid-free pages to protect those photos.
  • Carve out fun time: Most parents crave one-on-one time with their adult children, so create a special outing to a place they would enjoy that provides ample time for talking and relaxing. Consider the monthly free day at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, or when they reopen The Getty (which is always free) or The Broad contemporary art museum, also free. The same gift is good for siblings — when was the last time you spent an afternoon with your sister or brother?
  • DIY sweater pillows: Have moths eaten bits of your softest sweaters? Upcycle them into soft and cozy pillows in less than an hour by following an easy envelope sewing method demonstrated by the School of Decorating in this YouTube video. Whether luxe cashmere, cable knit or thrift store find, a sweater pillow is a nice way to provide someone with warmth and softness during hard times. The tutorial is also a great way to demonstrate sewing basics to anyone who wants to learn.

For children

Creating fun videos (and memories) during the holidays.
(Kelly Malka / For The Times)

  • Give one special gift: Sit down with your kids and discuss priorities. What one gift from Santa would make them happiest? If you can focus your spending on making that one Santa gift come true, it will be more meaningful. If you can, add a few other fun, inexpensive gifts. Branch recalls receiving a Terri Lee doll dressed in a Brownie uniform when she was 9, but even more memorable were the clothes her mother sewed for the doll, including yellow flannel jammies.
  • Make hair scrunchies out of scraps of beautiful/interesting material to give your long-haired child fun ways to keep their hair out of their eyes.
  • Tell your child’s story in photos: For as little as $10 and some computer time, you can create a book for your children featuring their photos and stories. If you’re really ambitious you can retell your child’s favorite story using photos of him or her as the hero. One company, Pinhole Press, allows you to make personalized board books, which are pricey at $40 but sturdy enough for toddlers who love looking at photos of themselves (and are too young to care about their best angle).
  • Create an imaginary vacation: If you can’t go to Legoland in Carlsbad, bring Legoland to you. Pair a gift of Legos with a stay-at-home dream vacation to Legoland . Provide special foods, virtual tours, books, crafts and activities that recall special times at the theme park. Other dream vacation ideas: Disneyland, New York, Paris, Hawaii.

Delight the gardening fans in your life with our plants gift guide featuring clogs, gloves, planters, and other helpful resources.

From children

  • Create flower “bombs”: Gift giving is more festive when everyone is involved. Seed bombs, for instance, are useful and fun to make because children can get dirty in the process. Mix compost, clay soil or clay powder from the craft store with wildflower seeds and water and form into balls. Wrap the balls in burlap or fabric, or place in a recycled jar.
  • Propagate succulents: Children can easily create gifts of succulents in a pretty mug, small sturdy basket or other interesting recycled container. (Add a hole in the bottom for drainage so the succulents don’t drown.) Help them choose succulent cuttings from your collection or a (willing) neighbor’s, and plant them in decomposed granite or potting soil for succulents. The cuttings should root in time for holiday gift-giving.
  • DIY botanical luminarias: Make simple botanical luminarias using leaves, flower petals or blossoms and ferns you have gathered (this is a fun activity to do while walking through the neighborhood with your children). In Kelly Wilkinson’s book “Weekend Handmade,” she details how: Using a craft knife, cut eight 9-by-4½-inch strips of wax paper to make two lanterns. Arrange the leaves and petals between two sheets of wax paper, then apply a clothes iron set on low. The sheets will fuse quickly. Bind the four panels using pretty Japanese washi paper tape, which is available in craft stores, add a tea light in a glass container and voila, instant holiday ambiance.
  • Make cocoa fixings: Fill mason jars with homemade hot cocoa mix (such as this recipe from the L.A. Times test kitchen). Add a small bag of mini marshmallows and a handwritten card with directions for preparing the cocoa.
  • Coupon books: A coupon book is a great way for kids to customize gifts for family members without spending money. You can download templates from the internet, but it’s more fun to see what kids come up with on their own, hugs included.

Besties

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Make a painting of your friend.
(Kelly Malka / For The Times)

  • Make a reminder of your friendship: One cheesy but sweet idea uses a 1-inch cube of wood, painted a pretty blue and wrapped in a tiny ribbon, with a handmade card that includes these words: “Whenever you are lonely or even feeling blue, you only have to hold this gift and know I think of you. You never can unwrap it. Please leave the ribbon tied. Just hold the box close to your heart. It’s filled with love inside!”
  • Schedule a friends’ day out: Do all the things he or she loves, just the two of you. Make them a surprise, with a schedule of what the day will include such as visits to a favorite botanic garden, coffee spot, ice cream shop or brewery.
  • Build a basket of favorites: Put together a pound of his favorite coffee with three or four bottles of unusual IPAs, or two or three handmade soaps in fragrances she’ll love, or essential but hard-to-find spices for cooking their favorite ethnic foods.
  • DIY herb bouquet: Forage in your backyard for hardy herbs such as rosemary, sage, lavender, Magenta spreen, African blue basil, mint and lemon verbena. The herbs will last a long time once they are cut and can be repurposed in the kitchen. Wrap them in paper or add them to a recycled jar for a fresh herb bouquet.
  • Gift a houseplant: Propagate one of the new shoots from your Pilea peperomioides and pass it along to a friend (this is why the cute and trendy plant it is often called the “friendship plant”). Clip the pups at the base of the plant, soak them in water until roots appear, and then plant in soil. You can also offer a pilea in water — a candle jar works well --— and let the recipient transfer the plant to a container of their choice. Other cuttings that work well as transplants: pothos, hoya, philodendron and succulents.
  • Tie-dye with a friend: Collect new or gently worn white T-shirts, cotton napkins or towels and have a tie-dye session with friends using onion skins, avocado pits and other natural ingredients from your kitchen or yard to make gifts for others.

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Food gifts

  • Preserved lemons are often required in Middle Eastern recipes. Make your own with lemons and salt and offer it as a beautiful gift.
  • Herb-infused vinegar or oils are easily created with fresh rosemary, basil, chives or cilantro. This flavored olive oil can be used for crudites and pastas or to add flavors to soups and stews.
  • Sourdough starter: If you’ve spent much of the quarantine baking sourdough bread and feeding your starter, why not offer it as a gift? Place the starter in a jar, and (important!) include instructions on how to take care of it.
  • Cookies and candy, oh my: Is it possible to have too many home-baked sweets during the holidays? We say no, so if you plan to bake sweets, make enough to share. Dollar stores have lots of inexpensive boxes and tins, but Branch says small baskets, fabric-covered boxes, old pottery bowls lined with lace napkins, tin buckets and even brown paper bags tied with festive ribbon work for sharing. As a final touch, Branch recommends including your recipe on a card and tying it to the gift with ribbon or yarn.

Spice up your 2020 holiday season with our food gift guide featuring products, accessories, tools, classes, and more.

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Decorating

Hand-crafted decorating ideas.
(Kelly Malka / For The Times)

  • Make paper-chain garlands for your house and tree. All you need is colored construction paper cut into strips and then glued (or stapled) into circles, one joined to the other to create a chain as long as you have patience to make. A little spray glitter (or glitter on a thin layer of glue) adds extra cheer.
  • Go full-out winter solstice: Clip boughs from pine or fir trees, holly branches or even eucalyptus to bring the beauty of greenery indoors for your mantle, a large vase or atop a bureau. Yes, the needles will drop and require a bit of a cleanup, but the lovely aroma and festive feeling that comes from decorating with real greenery make it all worthwhile. Or go SoCal greenery only
  • Frost pinecones: One easy technique is to brush the pine cone “petals” with white glue and then roll the cones in Epsom salt so that it clings to the outside, looking like snow. Let dry for 24 hours. You can also spray the cones with white spray paint or dip the edges into white craft paint.
  • Pick lemons, don’t make lemonade: Gather lemons and gently rub each one so that its natural oils will make the fruit shine and encourage its aroma. Pile the lemons in a bowl and add a sprig of holly on top. You can also use pomegranates (add limes for extra color) or quince, which have a beautiful fragrance.
  • DIY gift wrap: Get kids involved in gift-giving by making gift wrap using potato cutouts. Cut a potato in half, draw a design, cut it out with a knife, paint it, and stamp a pattern on discarded brown bags or other paper. It’s an easy and fun activity to do with kids and it doesn’t cost anything.

Share self-care this 2020 holiday season with our health and wellness gift guide featuring body products, CBD items, games, and more.

  • Toilet paper crafts: Kids can transform sturdy toilet paper tubes into snowmen, elves, angels, reindeer and more.
  • Christmas tree alternatives: Christmas trees are expensive, so have fun creating an inexpensive family alternative using succulents, paper, lights, houseplants — the possibilities are endless.
  • Make ornaments from succulents: Construct your own succulent ornaments with a paper clip and a cutting from your garden.
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Things to do

How to celebrate the holidays with little or no money.
(Kelly Malka / For The Times)

  • Holiday lights tour: Do a little research to find the best spots for neighborhood light shows, load up your playlist with holiday songs for the ride and bring along popcorn or other snacks. It’s hard to know which neighborhoods will shine this year (COVID-19 has closed many public light displays), but past neighborhood dazzlers include the Sleepy Hollow neighborhood in Torrance, on Robert Road off Pacific Coast Highway; Candy Cane Lane on Lubao and Oxnard streets in Woodland Hills; another Candy Cane Lane in El Segundo, starting on the eastern block of Acacia Avenue; and Christmas Tree Lane in Altadena, on Santa Rose Avenue between Woodbury Avenue and Altadena Drive. In Burbank, Nortons Winter Wonderland and his neighbor, Keith’s Winter Snowland blaze through most of December in the 500 block of North Florence Street. Mommypoppins.com has a list of other locations in Los Angeles.
  • Bake and decorate cookies: Everyone should make at least one batch of sugar cookies and decorate with abandon, using frosting and sprinkles. There are dozens of recipes online, but JoyFoodSunshine.com has excellent tips along with recipes for cookies and frosting. Pro tip: Give every decorator a baking sheet on which they can frost their cooking to minimize the mess of excess sprinkles. Tired of sugar cookies? Check out the myriad recipes on Christmas-cookies.com.
  • Make Jonathan Gold’s favorite latkes: You don’t have to celebrate Hanukkah to savor these delicious fried potato pancakes. Yes, they take a bit of work, but with a group of graters, the work becomes a party (albeit one with bloodied knuckles). Everyone loves them and they are a fun activity. Pair with homemade applesauce and sour cream.
Illustration for story about how to celebrate the holidays with little or no money
(Kelly Malka / For The Times)

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  • Volunteer/donate: The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank has opportunities for volunteers to assemble food baskets or sort food for distribution. Or you can donate food to any of its partner agencies/food providers. Closer to home, check on an elderly or infirm neighbor to see if they need help with yard work or grocery shopping. Your family can rake leaves, trim unruly bushes, pull weeds, even wash windows outside and make a real difference in someone’s life.
  • Organize a game night: Gather three or four Scrabble games and have a Scrabble playoff. Telestrations, one of the funniest games ever played, has a 12-person set for $39 and is worth every penny. Other good group games include Sequence, charades and, of course, that old classic Monopoly, especially when you create your own rules.
  • Savor the season: This tip should be first, not last. It’s easy to be overwhelmed during the holidays, so make this your mantra: All I want for the holidays is time. Time to savor delicious treats you don’t usually eat, time to prop up your feet and watch a corny holiday movie with the people you love. Time to string popcorn and cranberries. Time to read to your children, play silly games and hug them every chance you can.
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