Save on festive fun: Make the most of the holidays without breaking the bank

Melissa Erickson

‘Tis the season to celebrate, but can it be done without spending a small fortune?

“Everyone is feeling the crunch of economy, so why not take advantage of some ways to get in the holiday spirit for free?” said David Ning, who writes a personal finance blog at MoneyNing.com.

The holiday season is packed with free or low-cost festivities, from Santa sightings to tree lightings to music and more. Ning recommended a variety of wintertime activities you can find right in your own backyard.

Keeping it local

In many communities, the holiday season officially kicks off the day or weekend after Thanksgiving with the official lighting of the Christmas tree. This merry event could include a holiday parade, visits with Santa and Mrs. Claus, decorated storefront windows, cookies and cider, carriage rides, and musical performances by local students and madrigal groups.

Tree lightings are often held in conjunction with holiday walks in the business district that encourage residents to visit local shops for sales and special treats.

If your town doesn’t have big plans, could a neighboring village be celebrating in style? Check the  paper or with city agencies.

Lighting up the night

If you’re lucky enough to be near a major urban area during the holiday season, one can’t-miss free activity is viewing the big city lights. For instance, if you’re near New York City, check out the giant Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. The world-famous window displays down Fifth Avenue and the dazzling, neon lights of Times Square are free and fun.

But you don’t have to be in the Big Apple to see amazing light displays. Even in smaller cities, corporations spend thousands of dollars to light up the night. Pack the family in the car for an evening jaunt to check out how the neighbors have decorated their homes. Ask around to find out which residents go above and beyond with their holiday magic.

Celebrating diversity 

The holiday season is a special time of year for people who embrace their ethnic and religious heritage. Celebrate your own faith and traditions and learn more about others by taking part in cultural or religious events.

For instance, in the western suburbs of Chicago, the town of Geneva celebrates its Swedish heritage with a special appearance by Santa Lucia complete with a crown of lighted candles. In areas with significant Latino populations, like Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, Catholic churches hold “Posada” festivities to give an ethnic flavor to Christmas celebrations. Churches welcome respectful visitors and many have free holiday events such as concerts, living crèches or decorated Advent windows.

Try something new. It can be as easy as visiting a bakery to sample ethnic Christmas breads such as stollen, gugelhupf or kolach.

Window-shopping and then some

Sure, you’ll be tempted to spend some money if you enter the mall, but consider the many frugal and fun activities taking place there. Santa is usually in residence in a cozy cottage complete with elves. Often, he is more than happy to visit with children for free -- even offering a small gift. Check to see if you can snap a photo for free as opposed to purchasing one.

Special events such as children’s singing groups, local radio stations broadcasting live or holiday arts and crafts fairs often occur on the weekends. Or take part in a holiday story time at a bookshop such as Borders that plans regular holiday activities.

Music and more

Christmas and holiday activities abound. Check the Web site of the public library for story times, holiday cooking classes, game nights and arts and crafts activities. You can spend big bucks seeing the touring company of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, but the enjoyment can be just as large catching a community theater or high school production of “A Christmas Carol.”

Schools offer a treasure trove of holiday entertainment, including music and chorus concerts that are often free or less than $5. If your town has an arts council, check its Web site for holiday events. And on Christmas Eve, don’t forget to gather as a family and track Santa’s whereabouts online as he covers the globe. It’s online at www.norad.mil.