Many families set out to create special memories during the holiday season.

In the past, that might have involved spending big bucks to make a child's every wish come true.

This year, we're all watching our finances, and people are thinking longer and harder about how they'll celebrate the holidays.

Many folks are struggling just to pay their bills and can't even consider the lavish holidays of years past.

In fact, in October, a Gallup poll reported that 35 percent of Americans plan to spend less this holiday season than they spent in 2007. In October last year, only 19 percent of Americans planned to spend less than they had the previous year.

According to the poll, the average amount consumers predict they will spend on the holidays this year is $801, down $100 from last year.

The good news is, you don't have to have lots of money to keep the magic in the holidays.

The Consumer Reports Holiday Shopping Poll found that 88 percent of Americans feel that the coming holiday season will be at least as happy as last year and 28 percent predict that this year will be even happier than 2007.

Here are some ways to keep the magic in your holiday season without breaking the bank:

-- Buying a tree: Whether you put the gang into the family van and schlep to the local department store, the corner tree lot or a farm, going to buy the Christmas tree together can add magic to your holidays.

"Going to the tree farm has been a tradition for our family since my husband and I were dating," says Leisa Hart of Summerville, whose three children are now teenagers. "Sometimes we don't see eye to eye on which one is the perfect one, but it's always great fun for the five of us. This year, we'll have to get a smaller tree, but we will still go out together to get it."

-- Personal letters and calls from Santa: Locally, the Mount Pleasant and Isle of Palms recreation departments both can hook up good little girls and boys with a phone call from Santa. Parents need to register their children ahead of time. For details, visit or

"Santa called our house years ago," says mom Nicole Deas of Charleston. "I'll never forget the look on my daughter's face when he identified himself, and then he knew so much about her. She was speechless, but afterward, she told everybody about that phone call."

The St. Andrew's Parks and Playgrounds Administration has a connection to get the Jolly Old Elf to write kids a letter. For more information on that, visit

There are also lots of online sites that offer personalized letters from Santa. Some are free, and others charge.

-- Lights: The twinkling of lights during the holidays certainly can add magic to the season. Take a ride around your neighborhood and check out the neighbors' nighttime decorations.

If you want to see the Holy Grail of Christmas lights, head over to James Island County Park for the Holiday Festival of Lights, where you are certain to wonder at the magic of hundreds of light displays made up of millions of lights. The park display is open daily until Jan. 4. Admission for a regular family vehicle is $10, and you can drive around the loop as many times as you like. The park also offers train rides, specialty shops and visits with Santa.

-- Christmas Eve church services: Attending religious services together as a family adds to the magic of the season.

"We are so busy, but going to church helps keep us grounded and helps us to remember the reason for the season," says Alex Daniels of Summerville. "I particularly like the Christmas Eve service. There just seems to be something special in the air."

-- Elf Magic: "Elf on the Shelf," a book by Carol V. Aebersold and Chanda A. Bell, illustrated by Coe Sieinwart, comes with a "magical" elf who reports to Santa on the behavior of his family's children. Parents will love reminding their children that the "elf is watching," and the children, who are forbidden from touching the elf, will learn restraint. The boxed set costs about $30. Visit

"Having an elf can have a big effect on a child," says Christine Osborne, owner of Wonder Works toy stores. "I have a lot of people who buy them and then come back to tell me stories about them."

-- Caroling: We all know what it is, but does anybody do it? Perhaps the occasional school or church group, but otherwise caroling seems to have just about faded away.

A poll conducted for the National Christmas Tree Association found that in 2005 only 6 percent of those surveyed planned to go caroling. So maybe the time has come to gather up your family, stand in front of the neighbor's house and belt out some holiday tunes.

"Several years ago, when we lived in Maryland, our neighbors came to our door caroling one night," says Keshia Johnson of Mount Pleasant. "We weren't sure how to react, but we wound up putting on our coats and joining them. The people at the houses we visited were just as shocked and surprised to find us on their doorsteps. But we had a great time, and the kids still talk about it."

-- Gather around the TV: During the holidays, there are lots of shows on TV that underscore the magic of Christmas.

"My family particularly likes the original (1947) version of "Miracle on 34th Street,' " says Rose Davis of North Charleston.

ABC Family again counts down the days with the "25 Days of Christmas," which includes "The Polar Express" (8 p.m. today) and many other family favorites. Visit

Of course, other channels will still be showing their share of holiday shows and holiday-themed episodes of regular shows.

-- Volunteering: Many folks will tell you there's no magic like what you feel when you hand a meal to a homeless person or make Christmas wishes come true for a needy child.

This time of year, there are plenty of volunteer opportunities at area soup kitchens and groups who help underprivileged children through angel trees or in other ways.

"I want my kids to know that the holidays aren't all about getting, but are about giving, too," says Allison Morgan of Charleston. "I always try to let them put money in the Salvation Army bucket or put toys in collection boxes."

-- Family board games: Osborne says many cash-strapped families are turning to family board games that they can play together.

Some of the new ones this year are Brainstonz from McWhiz (about $35) and Pentago (about $22). Both are thinking games that involve strategy. Other old staples, such as Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit, also still are popular.

Active games, such as cornhole, "redneck" golf and disk golf also are popular games to play with the family, and if you can't afford to buy them, you can make your own at home.

-- Baking: Holiday baking can serve many purposes.

It's relatively inexpensive and provides delicious results.

The Home Baking Association says baking together creates family traditions and is an opportunity to teach children life skills.

And those cookies, pies or cakes you bake can have many purposes, too. They can be just for your own use at home, they can be gifts for teachers or neighbors or they can be left for Old St. Nick on Christmas Eve.

And you can't beat the smell of something yummy baking in the oven.