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According to a recent poll from the Consumer Reports National Research Center,  76% of Americans plan on cutting back on holiday spending this year. That may merely confirm what you already suspected, but what does come as a surprise is that 88% of respondents anticipate that the season will be every bit as joyful as last year, and 28% look forward to an even happier holiday.

How do you celebrate the season without overspending? Focus on experiences and time spent together more than on gifts. While kids may already be hard at work on their wish lists, they’re also the easiest to captivate with creative and low-cost activities that make the holidays magical.

MainStreet turned to Cynthia Townley Ewer, editor of, for family fun ideas. Ewer stresses the importance of emphasizing memories and creating family traditions over gifts. “It’s all about finding ways to celebrate without saying, ‘What’s on your list,’” she says. Ewer suggests punctuating the weeks before Christmas with special events. Here are four of her brightest ideas.

Christmas Tree Camp-out
The first night you set up your Christmas tree, roll out sleeping bags or blankets on the floor beneath and sleep under the tree. The glow of the lights will stand in for stars, and the piney fragrance will make it feel practically like the great outdoors. “You’ll kick off the season without spending a dime,” Ewer notes. “And your kids will never forget it.”

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A Holiday ElfHouseguest
Are you planning on hosting company over the holidays? “Invite a magic elf to come and stay,” Ewer recommends. Get a small toy, it could be a gnome or even a snowman or reindeer (elf dolls can be strangely difficult to find) and introduce it as a magic elf on December 1. Explain to your kids that the elf will be staying with your family for the next several weeks, keeping an eye out for good and bad behavior and sending reports back to Santa, with whom he’ll hitch a ride back to the North Pole on Christmas Eve.

“The thing about elves is that they tend to get into all sorts of mischievous trouble,” Ewer explains. Your kids might come down to breakfast and find that the elf is in the fridge, guarding the orange juice, or is peeking out of the cookie jar. “They also love to decorate the Christmas tree with toilet tissue,” says Ewer.

Your family’s elf also might leave thoughtful notes and little treats for anyone who plays nicely with siblings, or who helps her mom carry the groceries inside.

Literary Advent Calendar
“Here’s one I love, because it’s free and it promotes reading,” says Ewer. Go to the library and check out stack of Christmas themed books, or grab them off your own bookshelves. Wrap them in colorful wrapping paper and place in a basket and each night have one child choose a book to unwrap and read it together. “It helps you calm down and relax as a family,” she says.

Make it Easy
Making your own presents isn’t always an inexpensive and easy way to give gifts and decorate. “When it comes to crafting, many of us have a black thumb,” says Ewer. “And you can really drop a bundle at the craft store.” She recommends simplifying traditional projects, like making a gingerbread house. Sure, you could bake gingerbread, carefully build and decorate the house and use it as an elaborate centerpiece. Or, you can let the kids go crazy with graham crackers and a tub of frosting. Use the graham cracker box, or another cardboard box, as the frame and simply paste the crackers on. Buy a variety of colorful candies and use the frosting to decorate the house, drawing window, doors and details. This approach reflects Ewers larger holiday philosophy, which she sums up by saying, “Do less, enjoy more.”