MY NINE-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER, Rayna, wasn't much bigger than Cindy-Lou Who when she got wise to the fact that there is a season when lots of tasty goodies and presents are around and—the best part, in her opinion—school is out. If she could set the daily agenda during this time, it would go something like this: Sleep until ten, catch an hour of cartoons while snacking on something sweet, begin several art projects, leave them all unfinished with bits of dried glue, glitter, and paper scattered about the house, play computer games for another hour, then announce that she's bored and, by the way, "Have you bought my presents yet?"
Sound familiar? If so, you are probably the parent of school-age children, and your challenge is the same as mine as you prepare for the holidays: keeping them entertained while minimizing their exposure to the season's commercialism and retaining your sanity. I have found that there are ways to do this that are both fun for kids and not too nerve-racking for those of us who, if we hear one more chorus of "Holly Jolly Christmas," will punch the next fat guy in a red suit we see. Most of these suggestions will get you and your little ones on your feet and outdoors, and some might even teach them about giving rather than receiving. Call it thinking outside the (gift) box.
Let the parade pass you by. Everyone loves getting up early on a Saturday morning during the holidays to snag a good spot from which to watch the pomp and pageantry of a parade, right? Although the Neiman Marcus-Adolphus Children's Parade in Dallas is free, this year I'm dipping into my Rolling Stones concert-ticket fund to spring for some reserved bleacher seats so Rayna can get a good gander at her favorite cartoon character, SpongeBob SquarePants. (Yes, my priorities have changed, but I'm sure Old Saint Mick would understand.) The televised parade is the only one in the U.S. designed specifically for children, and all proceeds (from sponsorships and ticket sales for related events) benefit the Children's Medical Center of Dallas. Other good bets include Chuy's Children Giving to Children parades in Austin and San Antonio, which encourage kids to take a toy (new or gently used, unwrapped) to Santa for less-fortunate children. The first time Rayna did this, she was barely three. When the floats paused, allowing her and other children in the crowd to hand their gifts to the volunteers, she looked at me with modest pride. I still remember that look, and I say it was worth the fight (think baby strollers turned BattleBots) for the perfect curbside vantage point.
Get a move on. Since you've surely been setting a good example by eating carrot sticks instead of cookies and sipping eggless soynog, stay on top of that New Year's resolution by exercising with your kids. A recent study by the Department of Health and Human Services found that eight million U.S. schoolchildren are overweight, and lack of exercise was cited as a major culprit. So lace up those jogging shoes and join in one of the many Jingle Bell runs that take place around the state (contact your local running store), such as New Braunfels' tenth annual Jingle Bell 5K Run/Walk and kids' run in beautiful Landa Park. If fast footwork isn't your thing (and nobody in your family is claustrophobic), take a hike under the sixty-foot limestone span at Natural Bridge Caverns during the site's annual Caroling in the Caverns event, when five area choirs stationed along the three-quarter-mile tour sing holiday songs, taking advantage of the chambers' acoustics. A portion of the ticket price goes to local charities.
Go wild. While a zoo may not be the first place that comes to mind for a winter outing, the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville lines its walkways with more than eight hundred luminarias for its Zoo Nights and Lights; visitors stroll about while sipping on Mexican-style hot chocolate and munching on churros, traditional pastries topped with cinnamon and sugar. Although it's unlikely that you'll see snow, you're sure to spot the snowy egrets that make themselves at home in the zoo's huisache and mesquite trees every December. At the Houston Zoo's Family Posada Night Prowl, an event with a Latin American accent, kids can take a guided tour, pulverize a piñata, and spy on nocturnal animals.
Chill out. Defying logic, many snow-deprived Texas kids, like Rayna, persist in dreaming of a white Christmas. Actually, what Rayna would like even better is a snowball fight with her cousins in Sweden. What to do if a plane ticket to Scandinavia isn't in the budget? At the outdoor ice-skating rink at the Woodlands Town Center, kids can count on a cozy cup of hot chocolate and probably a bruise or two. (Houston's popular Dynegy-sponsored outdoor rink was iced this year because of the company's financial troubles.) There's nothing more touching than watching your child hang on to the wall for dear life while other little skaters glide across the ice like future Tara Lipinskis. If only snow will do, head to Holiday in the Park at Six Flags Over Texas, in Arlington, where an eleven-foot-high hill of man-made snow with a 75-foot slope lets youngsters experience the thrill of sledding.
Be an angel. Can children really be convinced that it's better to give than to receive? Probably not. But by doing some volunteer work with you, they'll learn that giving has its own rewards. The toy drives held in many cities provide an opportunity for children to get outside themselves. Each year San Antonio's Elf Louise Christmas Project, for instance, needs "elves" to wrap and deliver about 60,000 presents. In Austin, Rayna and I take part in an annual cookie drive organized by our congregation, delivering goodies to neighborhood fire stations on Christmas Day. In addition to getting to see the fire trucks, she witnesses the dedication of people who do their job no matter what