The song "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas" popular since Robert Meredith Willson first wrote it in 1951 captures the aesthetics and feelings associated with the holidays.
Willson describes holly adorning doors, bells ringing and children anticipating gifts. He also writes: "And mom and dad can hardly wait / For school to start again." Though that line is usually sung flippantly, it can ring true.
While school is closed this holiday season, check out some of the activities listed below to keep the family occupied and jolly.
Writing contest for school-aged children
The Palo Alto Library hosts an annual writing contest for children. This year's topic is "What would you create that could change your world?"
Essays are limited to 500 words or less and are due by Jan. 13, 2014. Visit the Palo Alto Library's website for more information: www.cityofpaloalto.org/library.
Classes and unstructured play
U-Me, located in Menlo Park, is an indoor play facility for younger children offering unstructured play and organized classes.
"U-Me gives parents and caregivers a place to come hang out while kids play in a safe, closed, environment," said Melody Mortazavi, who owns U-Me.
Activities for children, including gross-motor and fine-motor development as well as music and art, are offered throughout the day.
There are four different activities offered on weekdays and two on weekends. Activities change frequently and are listed on U-Me's online calendar. Parents can play with their children in U-Me's facilities, or choose to enjoy the in-house cafe, which is also outfitted with free Wi-Fi.
With the exception of Dec. 24-25, limited hours on Dec. 31, and Jan. 1, U-Me is open during the holiday break. In addition to regular activities, U-Me will offer drop-off playtime on Dec. 26-27 and Jan. 2-3. Children ranging in age from infants to 8 years are welcome to play at U-Me, Mortazavi said.
Pricing and schedule information can be found on U-Me's website: www.u-meplace.com.
Art classes for school-aged children
Palo Alto Parents and Professionals for Art offers a day camp at Barron Park Elementary School Dec. 30 to Jan. 3 (no camp on Jan. 1). The camp runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and costs $208.
More information can be found at the website: www.pappa-art.org.
Experience fine art and cinema
The Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University offers docent-led tours and holiday film screenings for families on Dec. 22 and 29. A Christmas Story is showing at noon, 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. A docent-led tour of the museum begins at 1:30 p.m.
The museum will be closed on Dec. 25. Admission is free and more information can be found on the website: museum.stanford.edu under "Family Programs."
Go on a hike; admire wildlife and views of the Bay
Open daily from 8 a.m. until sunset, the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve provides views of avian wildlife and the San Francisco Bay.
The visitor center will be staffed on Dec. 31 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The preserve also allows dogs on leash, so feel free to get all the little legs in your family moving.
Ice skate at the Winter Lodge
The indoor/outdoor skating rink at Palo Alto's Winter Lodge is open during the winter holidays, except for Dec. 24-25 and Jan. 1.
Schedule and pricing information are available on the website: www.winterlodge.com.
Volunteer to plant native trees
The local volunteer organization Magic hosts two planting sessions of California native trees at "The Dish" open space on Stanford campus.
"We encourage families to participate," said Robin Bayer, who is coordinating the tree planting for Magic. "We think it's a wonderful way for families to celebrate winter holidays by working together to further common good."
Planting happens on Saturday, Dec. 21, and Dec. 28 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Volunteers are encouraged to return next summer or fall for a two-hour young tree watering session.
To sign up and for additional information, contact Bayer at email@example.com.
Cheer on the Stanford women's basketball team
The Stanford University women's basketball team plays the University of Tennessee on Dec. 21. Described by the university's athletic department as a "marquee rivalry matchup," the game takes place at 1:30 p.m. at Maples Pavilion on Stanford campus. Tickets are $16 for adults and $8 for youth.
Enjoy holiday lights and hot chocolate
Lytton Plaza, at the intersection of University Avenue and Emerson Street, is home to Palo Alto's Christmas tree. After viewing this traditional tree, walk to King Plaza, in front of City Hall on Hamilton Avenue to experience another kind of tree, Aurora. Aurora is a lighted metal tree sculpture that is also interactive: The colors can be changed using a mobile phone. Next, walk the short distance to Monique's Chocolates on Bryant Street for a custom-made hot chocolate.
"We offer a wide range of chocolate, from white chocolate to 99 percent dark chocolate that is not sweet at all," said Mark West, who owns the store.
In addition to deciding what kind of chocolate they want, customers can choose from regular milk, almond milk, hazelnut milk or water. Monique's Chocolates also offers add-in flavors such as orange, raspberry, mint and Mexican spices.
Even children who might be selective eaters are easy to please, West said.
"We can pretty much take care of anyone who shows up. That is what makes it fun. Nobody feels left out."
Monique's Chocolates, located at 539 Bryant St. in Palo Alto, will be closed Dec. 25-26 and Jan. 1. Hot chocolate starts at $3.50.
Check out neighborhood Christmas lights
Since 1940, the residents of Fulton Street, located across from Rinconada Park, have hosted Christmas Tree Lane, where every house on the street displays lighted holiday decorations.
Through Dec. 31, lighted holiday displays run nightly from 5 to 11 p.m. Parking and viewing information is available on their website: www.christmastreelane.org.