Most of us want to mark the holidays with loved ones, and that has typically meant flashing some cash. Fancy dinners out with friends, a Christmas movie, a trip to Disneyland – the list goes on.
Fortunately, there are many options to get folks together that are high on meaning and connection and low on cost. Here are some of my favorite that capture the spirit of the holidays without the drain on your bank account.
Board Game Night
I’m a nerd and so are my friends. We need very little excuse to bust out our favorite board games and spend a night heckling each other.
Board games have come a long way from your childhood memories.
If you’re looking for an intense experience, there are deep strategy games that can easily take a whole evening to play. My group tends to play 2-4 hour games like Hansa, Lords of Waterdeep, Castles of Burgundy, and Terra Mystica. However, there are also classic likes Monopoly and Life that make for a good time.
My favorite class of games for the holidays are specifically engineered for social interaction: Telestrations, Codenames, and One Night Ultimate Werewolf. I like to support artists and I also play all these games heavily so I own them, but you can create a homemade version yourself for free if you just want to borrow the general concept.
Telestrations – Each player starts with a secret word. The timer gets turned and everyone draws their word. After 60 seconds, everyone passes their book to the player on their left. Then each player takes a few seconds to guess in words(s) what they see, and passes again. This continues until everyone’s sketch book passes by every player and returns back to its original owner. Just like the game of “telephone,” the outcomes are unpredictable. An example is below. We played with booze and Cards Against Humanity cards, so our results were decidedly less wholesome. Here’s an example of a version you can print at home.
Codenames – Codenames is a social word game. A grid of words is laid out on the table, and two spymasters are told which words they need to get their team to guess. Spymasters give one-word clues that can point to multiple words on the table. Their teammates try to guess words of their color while avoiding those that belong to the opposing team. Some examples of people borrowing the concept and creating their own versions are shown here.
One Night Ultimate Werewolf – Each player gets a unique role: A Werewolf, Seer, Troublemaker, or another, all with special abilities. After a secret night phase that includes changing roles, players have just 5 minutes to find a Werewolf. Lots of shouting and finger pointing, and it tends to hold even the shortest attention spans as it lasts only 5 minutes per session.
Potlucks are a classic for a reason. The trick to ensuring a good potluck is requiring that everyone make something. Give plenty of advanced notice and perhaps a few links to easy recipes for your cooking-challenged friends. But don’t like someone get away with doing beverages. The best part is sitting there nervously wondering if people are enjoying your dish and talking about the snafus you encountered. I once laughed and choked my way through meat pies made by a couple where the had planned to halve the ingredients for the recipe and then forgotten halfway through. Those were some incredibly salty (but memorable!) pies.
Ugly Holiday Sweater/Holiday Cookie Party
I have an unrepentant sweet tooth, and the holidays are the perfect time for me to indulge. Ask everyone to bring homemade cookies of a different flavor for a Friday night hang out session. You can jazz it up by making it themed (Ugly Holiday Sweater party).
Everyone loves to curl up on a couch and watch a movie. With just a few details you make this a real experience together. You can require everyone to show up in pajamas, the ugliest winning a special prize. Advertise three different kinds of popcorn, or unique snacks.
If you want to capture the delight and surprise of opening a wrapped gift, try a re-gifting swap. This idea blew my mind when I heard of it. Everyone has a few gifts that weren’t quite a good fit for them hanging out in the back of the closet. They can all bring their favorites and see if they can find a good home for it with another person. Any gifts that aren’t loved are given de facto permission to be Craigslisted or donated away without causing offense.
Homemade Gift Swap
If re-gifting is too weird for you, consider a homemade gift swap. Most importantly, though, specify that the gift has to be something the gift giver has not made before or is an expert in. This ensures that all gifts are equally…homey.
This creates great stories during the exchange. I currently have a holey scarf which is my first attempt at knitting and stories to share with my friends about my first visit to a yarn store and the interesting personalities I met.
If you’re among family or really close friends, odds are they will want to keep the gift and feel a sense of connection when they see it. Though if you want to be really nice, classify this as an experiment that is about the experience and make sure everyone agrees ahead of time that they won’t be offended if the gift receiver ends up tossing it out or tucking it away in the closet.
Page 53 – The “Gift of Knowledge”
Give each other the gift of random knowledge with this totally free game.
You can play this game either at the library together on a weekend or just meet up on some designated evening with drinks and a couch at home. I prefer this at the library for maximum sense of urgency, and it is a particularly all-age friendly idea that way.
Everyone gets a set amount of time to run loose. They are allowed to pick up any nonfiction book they can find and they turn to Page 53. Their mission is to collect the most interesting fact (winner gets a prize) to take back and share with the group. I did this for my anniversary one year and learned about Medieval flowers, the mating habits of sea turtles, and the latrine system at Alcatraz among other things. The most interesting thing was the conversations the factoids kickstarted, and it catalyzed two more hours of youtube videos on sea turtles and the history of European discovery of the Americas. Better than buying your kid a new video game, eh?
Toys For Tots
You can go shopping with a clear conscience by organizing a Toys for Tots shopping trip with your family and friends.
Depending on your budget, you can comb the whole store to pick out one special gift, or plan to add a number of things to your cart.
But you get the feeling of doing some good in the world, an experience with your loved ones, and the experience of Holiday shopping without adding anything unnecessary to your house and giving a little kid something that will make their day. As a bonus, any donations are tax deductible so depending on your tax bracket it actually will cost you 20%-50% less.
I hope everyone gets a chance to enjoy the holidays the way they were meant to be celebrated: big on heart and low on cost. If you’ve got more ideas for how to celebrate on a budget, please share them in the comments below.