My family has a long tradition of musical ability, including playing pianos, clarinets, violins, guitars, baritones and lots of singing. If your family has this ability, there are some inexpensive traditions that can add a lot of meaning to the holidays.
My children and I moved to the Chicago area twenty-five years ago with very little money. We started a new tradition, on the advice of friends. In the evening, we turned off all the lights except the Christmas tree. Then we would sing Christmas carols, ending with Silent Night, which was written to be sung without accompaniment.
My older brother collects instruments from all over the world. Most are percussion instruments, but he played the tin-whistle, I played the fiddle, and the kids all played percussion. It was a great family tradition that continues with whatever instruments we can find.
Besides the typical school concerts and church events, there are other musical gifts for the families that have more to spend. A children’s play or musical is fun for everyone.
A music-less idea I got from a stress book is to shut off lights at mealtimes and eat by candlelight. It quiets the voices immediately.
Another tradition we created was a day we called “Yadnuf,” which is fun day spelled backwards. We would take a day off, if necessary, and do something we all considered fun. The first year we went to the Art Institute in Chicago, which had free days on Tuesdays. (Unfortunately, that has changed: only Thursdays from 5 to 8 PM) The second year we went to FAO Schwartz (not there anymore) and Nike Town. One other memorable trip was to Skate on State, which is ice skating, now housed in Millenium Park. Skates are available for rent for $12/pair with a $1 charge for a locker.
Skiing can be an expensive activity, but cross-country skiing in a snowy forest preserve can cause irrepressible laughter. (Chicago-area preserves information is here.) REI rents cross-country skis for a family of 4 for $168 for the first day, $76 for following days.
You can see a common thread here is family time together. Although children are seduced by media ads, the truly unforgettable gifts are those that involve having fun together. That is my wish for you for the holidays.