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5 affordable holiday traditions to help celebrate Christmas

You can’t put a price tag on magic, and yet, like the other 11 months of the year, some of the best family activities in December are free or surprisingly inexpensive.

McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park
See McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park’s Holiday Lights (Nov, 29-Jan. 5). Photo courtesy of McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park.

‘Tis the season of excess. Whether it be glitz, gifts or experiences, it’s easy to feel the pressure to open up your wallet in the name of creating a holiday season the whole family will remember. And the stakes are never higher than at Christmas.

You can’t put a price tag on magic, and yet, like the other 11 months of the year, some of the best family activities in December are free or surprisingly inexpensive. Here are five of my family’s favorite ways to celebrate that are high on tradition, but low on cost.

• Cut down your own Christmas tree. This is by far my favorite December activity. Forget U-cut farms. In the Wild West, you have to bring your own saw and lace up your hiking boots to claim a tree of your own. Before parenthood, my husband and I would spend hours scouring the cutting areas for a perfect fir or spruce. Now our little helper keeps us on the move. Permits are $15 and can be obtained from the Tonto, Apache-Sitgreaves, Kaibab, Coconino and Prescott National Forests. Find more information by searching “Christmas tree permit” for the specific forest at fs.usda.gov

Winter Wonderland. The first time we took our daughter to Winter Wonderland, she asked, “Is this Disneyland?” Chris Birkett’s dazzling home display of 25,000 lights and nightly “snowfalls” officially makes him the Clark Griswold of south Scottsdale — and also the winner of ABC’s “The Great Christmas Light Fight.” Stroll through the western Christmas-themed side yard and over the mine shaft’s swaying bridge to catch a glimpse of the Island of Misfit Toys in the backyard. Beware of Abominable! Displays run nightly from 6-10 p.m. Dec. 7-31 and are free to the public with a suggested donation of $5.

• Municipal fun. One of the things I love most about the Valley is that each suburb has its own flavor — and this is never truer than at Christmas. Chandler has its iconic Tumblewood Tree. Glendale illuminates 16 blocks of its charming downtown with 1.6 million LED lights. Mesa hosts Merry Main Street with an ice skating rink. And Scottsdale celebrates with a series of holiday events during Scottsdazzle — my favorite of which is from 3-7 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 7, when Fifth Avenue transforms into Sugar Plum Avenue for a day of crafts, candy land bounce houses, performances and a seated outdoor tea party with the sugar plum fairies ($15 per person).

• The “Nutcracker.” I grew up going to the “Nutcracker,” so I knew I wanted to continue the tradition with my daughter. Having never attended an Arizona performance, we ended up at the Orpheum Theatre when she was 3 years old and haven’t looked back. Not only does the Phoenix Ballet put on a wonderful show (Dec. 13-23), but the opulent Orpheum is magical in its own right. While I would categorize Nutcracker tickets as our one holiday splurge, it’s not the most expensive ticket in town. And there are many more affordable “Nutcracker” performances by local youth groups and local dance companies.

• McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park’s Holiday Lights. All aboard! The Valley’s beloved train park lights up the holidays from 6:30-9 p.m. Nov. 29-Jan. 5 with $5 train rides through a kaleidoscope of twinkling lights and displays on the Paradise & Pacific Railroad and $3 carousel rides on the Charros Carousel. Santa also makes appearances in the historic Maricopa Depot on Friday nights through Dec. 23.




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