By Angela Schneider
December can get so busy, the month can get away from you. Here are some suggestions for family activities to give you holiday spirit.
1 Build excitement. Make a paper chain to count down the days until Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or New Year's Eve. Hold a mini-ceremony to remove the links.
2 Have a food party. Each child or family brings cookies and one canned good to donate. Call your local food pantry or the Greater Chicago Food Depository, (773) 247-3663.
3 Adopt a family. To find one, call the Fairygodmother Foundation, (773) 388-1160, or the Holiday Food and Gift Basket program, (708) 771-6159, ext. 244, or check with your city, school or place of worship.
4 Enjoy winter. Glide-or wobble-around Chicago's Millennium Park ice rink with the kids. It's free, and skate rentals are $3. Daily 9 a.m.-7:15 p.m., 9 a.m.-9:45 p.m. Thursdays.
5 Give 12 months. Create a calendar with your children of their artwork as a gift for a grandparent, aunt, uncle or friend. It will be like giving a 12-month smile.
6 Kodomo Matsuri. The children's festival is from 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. at the Japanese American Service Committee, (773) 275-7212. Or try the Kids Only Flea Market in Northbrook where kids sell and buy gently used toys. It's from noon-3 p.m. at the Northbrook Park District, (847) 291-2980.
7 Dance-along Nutcracker. You and your child should have tutus and tiaras ready. Dance with professionals at the free event-3 p.m. for children-at the Chicago Cultural Center, (312) 744-6630. Dance away.
8 Buy a toy for another child with your child. Then donate it to the Walter Payton Christmas Toy Drive, Streamwood, (847) 605-0034; the LaCASA Zacharias Center in Gurnee, (847) 244-1187, ext. 20; and Joliet-area Toys for Tots, (815) 727-3683; or any other holiday toy drive.
9 Secret Santa. Write a special note to Santa or help him out-ADULTS ONLY PLEASE-by telling Santa about children who need a note at www.snowflakecastle.com.
10 Carol around the neighborhood, at local hospitals or nursing homes. Or compose a special song about your family. Videotape yourselves performing it.
11 Teach charity. Help your children earn a few coins, then encourage them to drop the money in a Salvation Army pail.
12 Cheer sick children with homemade "happy winter" cards. LaRabida Children's (www.larabida.org) and Chicago Shriners (www.shrinershq. org/shc/chicago) hospitals accept greeting cards for patients.
13 Lucia parade. The Lucia Festival procession begins at 4:45 p.m. from the Swedish American Museum, 5211 N. Clark St., Chicago, and returns for a 5 p.m. program. Join in at 7 p.m. for more celebration at the Ebenezer Lutheran Church, 1650 Foster Ave., Chicago.
14 Secret acts. Go out to breakfast and invite a neighbor who lives alone to join you. Or slip the waitress $10 to buy someone else's breakfast. Anonymously, of course.
15 Buy twice. If you buy gifts online, use one of the many Web sites that donate a portion to a worthy cause such as www.igive.com. The gift gives twice.
16 Light up. Bundle the kids in jammies and jump in the car to "ooh" and "ahhh" at twinkling holiday lights. Vote on which street has the best display or check out Mary Edsey's book, The Best Christmas Decorations in Chicago-land, complete with maps and directions. 17 Wrap it up. Volunteer to wrap donated gifts for needy families. Contact your town, school or place of worship and offer to help.
18 Clean the closet. Weed out the old clothes and toys and donate the good stuff to a worthy cause. Have the kids help and let them choose toys to give away.
19 Hanukkah is the Hebrew word for dedication and tonight the first of eight candles is lit. (Load the menorah from the right; light the candles from the left.) Tell your children the story of the Jewish holiday and how it celebrates the struggle for religious freedom.
20 That great street. Stroll down State Street and take in Marshall Field's holiday windows. They're based on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory this year. Stop in at the Walnut Room for lunch under the tree, but be prepared to wait. 21 Create. Make homemade Kwanzaa decorations. For inspiration, check out the Pre-Kwanzaa Festival at the South Shore Cultural Center, (312) 747-2536.
22 Surf's up. Unpack your sunglasses and shorts! This week is the halfway point to summer. Drink lemonade, sit on beach towels and watch "Beach Blanket Bingo."
23 Posadas. Even if you don't celebrate Christmas, visit Holy Cross/ Immaculate Heart of Mary in the Back of the Yards for the last night of the nine-day posadas processions. Children playing Mary and Joseph lead the procession through the neighborhood looking for a place to stay.
24 Read. Try something a little different such as December by Eve Bunting, about a homeless boy's Christmas; K Is for Kwanzaa, about the African-American celebration by Juwanda G. Ford; or By the Hanukkah Light by Sheldon Oberman.
25 Merry, merry. If Christmas is your holiday, merry yourself. But if not, try Something Else: A Hanukkah Festival from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, 618 S. Michigan Ave. Bring food for the EZRA food pantry.
26 Kwanzaa begins today. Celebrate the principle of unity in family and community. Play a board game together. The winner gets one hour of uninterrupted time with mom or dad this week. So do the losers.
27 Happy New Year. Celebrate from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. with a special early dress up party for children ages 5-13, $5 each at the DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Pl., Chicago, (773) 947-0600.
28 Slip, sliding away. Try the Cook County Forest Preserve Web site for eight sledding hills and two tobogganing spots. Go to www.fpdcc.com and click on "Recreation."
29 Say thank you. Make homemade thank-you notes. Take a snapshot of the kids playing with the gift, then decorate a card with used wrapping paper and leftover garland.
30 Get out. Take a walk through the local forest preserve. Or do art and games outside from 10 to 11 a.m. at a free program at the North Park Village Nature Center, 5801 N. Pulaski Rd. Call (312) 744-5472 to register.
31 Family 2004. Skip the babysitter-celebrate New Year's Eve as a family. Plan activities for kids and grown-ups. Do the Hokey Pokey, a talent show or a board game. If everyone is sleepy, celebrate when 2004 hits London. Or try First Night Evanston, one of several alcohol-free community parties, (847) 289-4248.