Last year, we began planning a bucket-list two-week vacation to Europe. When we decided the best time for our family’s trip was Christmas break, we, as parents, realized how unrealistic it would be to buy Christmas presents on top of the cost of the trip. While we would be budget traveling through Europe, we would still spend far more than the average amount we set aside for holiday spending. In addition, it simply wouldn’t be practical to try to haul Christmas gifts across the Atlantic to open Christmas Day, only to haul them back.
The idea of a gift-free holiday focusing on the wonderful gift of travel and experiences appealed to us greatly.
We went to the kids (ages 16, 14, and 11), and asked them what they thought of having our European trip be their Christmas gift. And their only Christmas gift. Their answer (in September of 2015), was a resounding YES. Whatever it took to get us all to Europe, they were onboard.
I was proud of them; I’ve never considered us to be a particularly materialistic or consumer-driven family, but let’s be real: my kids like presents. And like most families in middle class America, a big part of the Christmas holiday is centered around gifts, for better or for worse. None of my children still believed in Santa Claus, but they definitely still believed in making a list.
With the kids on board, we continued with our plans for Europe, spending all our Christmas gift fund on our travels. I knew we’d be celebrating Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in Florence, Italy, and started making plans for that time period in particular. I knew I wanted to make it special, despite the lack of gifts.
Because many parts of Italy celebrates the Epiphany more intensely than Christmas Day, I found that many local celebrations would have ended before our arrival in Florence. This disheartened me a little, but I forged ahead, asking our AirBnB host for restaurant recommendations that would be open and checking museum hours. By the time I was done planning, we had a lovely Christmas Eve meal reserved at a cafe recommended by a local, a Christmas morning self-guided walking tour, and plans to shop for and cook a Christmas Day dinner in our rented apartment.
I also enlisted the family’s help making a single family gift, which we would open together on Christmas morning. I ordered an AwesomeBox. This innovative gift allows families to add custom photos, stories, and messages to special cards for a lucky recipient. In our case, the recipient was us! Everyone filled out simple information online, such as ‘favorite family memory’ or ‘what I like most about this person is…’. AwesomeBox prints the cards, and ships them in a memory box. I had the box shipped to our house before we left, then brought the cards, unread, with us. They took up no more room than a deck of playing cards, and when we opened them on Christmas morning, it would be both a gift and a family event.
Lastly, we decided to do a family Secret Santa during our trip. We always budget a small amount of money for souvenirs, and for this holiday trip, we opted to purchase souvenirs for each other instead of for ourselves. Each family member drew a name, with the plan to buy three souvenirs for that person before Christmas Day. Souvenirs were to be $5 or less each. This way, we’d still be ‘buying things’ and everyone would still have something to ‘open’.
Here’s how it turned out (the good and the bad):
The first problem we had with our excellent gift-free holiday plan was with me. A few days before our departure, I started to panic. Maybe it was classic mom-guilt, but it just suddenly seemed terrible that I didn’t have gifts purchased for my kids. I even tried to talk my husband back out of our plan, and wanted to spend any amount, to purchase anything, for the boys. Needless to say, this was ridiculous, and I was talked down from the ledge.
The second problem we had was with our youngest. Despite agreeing to our plan, he apparently thought we didn’t really mean it, because in the days leading up to our trip, and even once on the trip, he referenced Christmas presents several times. Each time he said something about his anticipation of gifts, we reminded him gently that we’d decided our trip was our gift. And each time, he agreed, but seemed to continually ‘forget’. Needless to say, this did not help my guilt. What saved us was our Secret Santa plan. Our youngest loves buying things for others, and doing so brought him so much joy (and distraction) that he stopped wondering about ‘big’ gifts. It also helped that he knew someone was buying small items for him, too.
As it turns out, kids simply love the process of buying things for others and opening gifts, no matter how small.
At times, the souvenir shopping got to be a chore or a point of stress (as in, “I still need one more thing for so-and-so, and I can’t find anything!”), but for the most part, it was very satisfying. And our AwesomeBox was, well, awesome.
What our Christmas Day ended up looking like:
We arrived in Florence via train on Christmas Eve, and walking through the historic city center to our apartment was nothing short of magical. If the kids had ‘forgotten’ it was Christmas, they quickly remembered. On every corner, violinists played, and every street was adorned with holiday lights and decorations. Every church had an intricate cache out front. The bells chimed the hour, and we were entranced.
After settling into our apartment, we ventured out to the grocery store, where we purchased the makings of our Christmas morning meal. We bought a traditional Italian panettone (like a coffee cake), my kids’ favorite peach juice that’s abundant in Italy, and coffee. Then we walked to the small restaurant where we had a reservation, and had our first Tuscan meal. We ordered sparkling water and a bottle of wine, and toasted to our European Christmas.
That night, I reminded the kids yet again that ‘Santa’ had already gifted them with this trip (“Yeah, we know Mom!”…by this time, they’d heard it many times) but that we’d exchange our Secret Santa souvenirs and open our AwesomeBox with breakfast. For the first time ever, everyone slept in Christmas morning. We awoke to more church bells and a fun, special breakfast complete with a lace tablecloth I found in the apartment kitchen. We ate the panettone and exchanged our $5 gifts. Some were silly and some were thoughtful, and all made us feel loved.
We opened the AwesomeBox and took turns reading cards that expressed our gratitude for each other and our funniest/silliest/most important family memories. We took our time with this, and I think it was very special. The kids still keep their cards tucked away in their rooms.
We went out around noon, taking our historic walk of the city to learn more about Florence. The kids tolerated this with only some enthusiasm. I even heard things like, “It doesn’t feel like Christmas anymore.” Then, we turned a corner to find a tiny Christmas carnival in a small square. There was an ice skating rink, kiddie carnival rides, and a hot chocolate (cioccolata calda) stand. We stayed for the better part of an hour. Then we hiked to the best city views at Piazzale Michelangelo, where a large Christmas tree stood sentinel. It felt like Christmas again!
We ended up at a sidewalk cafe serving pizza for a late lunch, and never ended up making dinner! We ended our day with a nighttime stroll amid the city lights and an early bedtime in anticipation of museum hopping in the morning.
Today, almost a year later, the kids say they have no regrets about missing out on presents. After all, they’d be hard-pressed to remember what they’d gotten for Christmas, but still remember this trip like it was yesterday.
Tips for planning your own gift-free holiday:
- Prepare kids well ahead of time. This goes without saying, but remember that kids may need frequent reminders as well. Weave your gift-free holiday plans into the fabric of your itinerary, if you will. We said things like, “Because we’re not doing gifts, we’ll be able to rent Segways in Rome,” or, “With the money we’re saving on presents, we’ll be able to go out to that expensive restaurant as a family.”
- Have a Christmas Day plan. (Or whatever day is most important for your family, whether that’s Christmas, Christmas Eve, Three Kings Day, Boxing Day, or a day of Hanukkah.) Book a special restaurant reservation, plan a tour, or schedule a special family event. In other words, still mark the day. Don’t pretend it’s just like any other. Remember that many things may be closed on Christmas; ask ahead.
- Encourage kids to think of the entire trip as ‘Christmas day’. Maybe that one special day won’t be chock full of events and celebrations, but remind kids that every day of your trip, you’re doing special things, eating fun foods, and seeing amazing sights. Organize a family ‘white elephant’ gift giving, or have ‘secret Santas’ to facilitate smaller-scale gift giving and thoughtfulness.
- Bear in mind the ages of your kids. Honestly, I would not consider a gift-free holiday with kids who still believed in Santa. During family trips with kids this age, we’ve certainly scaled back presents for the sake of travel-ease, but we’ve always ‘delivered’ on the Santa promise.
- Start small. If you’re not ready to commit to a completely gift-free holiday, consider buying your kids experiences instead of physical gifts for some birthdays or holidays. Buy them memberships, tickets to that special show, or lessons. Make the gift of experiences a regular thing in your family.