The first thing to remember is that money and material things have little to do with making people happy, at least once basic needs have been met (e.g., clothing, housing, medical care, food and transportation). For instance, people who win large lotteries usually return to their previous level of happiness six months to one year later. Moreover, material possessions often tax us, as they need to be maintained, insured or otherwise cared for. What truly promotes happiness are things like loving relationships and engaging activities, neither of which has to cost much. So, in the spirit of the 12 Days of Christmas let me suggest a dozen such possibilities:
• Purchase a cheap, mini stuffed animal and mail it to your young child from Santa. Put a note in there stating that this is a magical being who will watch your child each day (even when not in the same room) and leave each night to report back to Santa on his or her behavior. Each night then reposition your magical snowman, reindeer, elf, etc. (This is a variation of the Elf on the Shelf concept. Certainly you can buy this product from Hallmark, but such isn’t required to create a magical experience.)
• Engage your child in a letter writing campaign with Santa (or any figure of your choosing). Send the first letter stating that Santa is willing to answer questions and write back-and-forth and that he enjoys receiving drawings. Include in your letter some holiday stickers and declare them magic stamps that call Santa to your box to retrieve your child’s letter. (The back story would be that Santa makes rounds prior to Christmas.) If you felt like it you could include a treat back with some of Santa’s letters.
• Purchase a cheap, mini stuffed animal and declare that it gets warm whenever Santa draws near. (You’d be amazed at how effective this can be.) (By the way, if you are a Santa family, check out www.noradsanta.org for offerings than can add significant doses of magic to your experience.)
• Bake holiday cookies once a week and deliver them to a soup kitchen or someone who could use a pick-me-up.
• Start an annual tradition of making holiday decorations and putting them on display (a trip to your local craft store can trigger creative ideas as can many online sites).
• Join a church choir (I bet most of them wouldn’t require you to be a member).
• Go sleigh riding. Sure, this can be done expensively, but it can also be done with cardboard and a snowy hill, or a wet, grassy hill.
• Start a family game night, with members of the family rotating being in charge (i.e., picking the game and assigning teams). Flavor the night with treats. Losers might do something nice (but easy) for the winners (e.g., make their bed the next morning, give them a 15 minute massage).
• Create one night a week when you watch old family movies. (It’s funny how many hours of these we have laying around but never watch.) This is all the better if you have movies from your childhood. You could partner this with a “campout” where you all make sleeping tents in your TV room.
• Have bubble gun wars. Bubble guns (you know, that shoot bubbles) are very cheap. You could arm each family member with one, divide into teams and have the equivalent of paint ball wars. This could be done indoors or outdoors depending on your situation.
• Start geocaching. Geocaching involves finding hidden “treasures” in your area (usually trinkets of very little or no value) and replacing them with treasures of your own. See www.geocaching.com for an orientation.
• Play yard hockey. You could do this with brooms and a tennis ball or some other light ball. (You could also duct tape the end of the broom.) Set up goals, boundaries, time limits and any other rules you need. You could even buy a cheap trophy with the engraving “2012 Yard Hockey Champs” and award it to the team that has the best record by the end of the holiday season. (Imagine your child, in the future, planning to bring home his or her intended future spouse and asking that person “so, how good are you with a broom?”)
That’s 12 I came up with in a few minutes on a Friday morning. With a little thought and effort you could probably double my list. Actually, here are three bonus items that my wife and eldest just suggested after I asked them to review this post.
• Follow a local sports team. Odds are that there is a local high school or college basketball team whose games you could start attending.
• Drive around looking for the best lighting display. You might bake some cookies for the winners and either present them your award or just leave them on their door step with a congratulatory note.
• Pick out new recipes to try as a family.
Which do you think your child will recount, with joy, years from now? That present he or she opens in a few weeks or what it was like to see dad limping around with a taped up broom? Right. It’s the connection and the shared activities that matter. These can truly yield priceless returns on the cheap.