Just when you thought there was still time to return the Alpaca-fur swimsuit Cousin “X” got you last year, the season of giving has snuck up on us again. The economy has been rough; sadly, Santa stopped handing out freebies at puberty and, with the president-elect’s universal health care plan, holiday illnesses like Claus-trophobia and Tinsel-itis won’t get you out of gift-giving anymore.

Even if you’re broke and blue this season, take solace in the old adage that tells us the best things in life are free. This year, instead of spending money on toys or jewelry, build happy (and cost-effective) memories with friends and family that will inspire a lifetime of laughs. Nothing is more hilarious, for example, than an elementary school Christmas pageant and this year New Orleans has the Best One Ever.

The Jefferson Performing Arts Society is putting on The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. The story, initially a book, traveled the usual road to fame – book, TV movie, then stage adaptation. The protagonists are the Bradleys, starring in a kind of (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation meets A Charlie Brown Christmas). Teatro Wego houses the production, which stars an all-kid (human, not goat) cast as a group of small town folks trying to put on an annual Christmas pageant under the supervision of a replacement director. The Bradleys battle the Herdmans, a surly, bullying group of grungy Grinches bent on taking the holly – and likely jolly – out of the Christmas season.

Also taking the stage this holiday season is the JPAS production of Miracle on 34th Street. Even the least spirited reveler can appreciate the classic tale of a kindly old man, turned mall Santa, turned mental patient, turned regular Santa again.
While Santa’s sanity is the greatest gift of all, he can’t rock a vest like Aaron Neville. This holiday season, Neville wraps up a 15-city holiday tour in New Orleans at the House of Blues on Dec. 21.

The tour will feature songs from his numerous Christmas albums as well as assorted secular hits. In the family-oriented spirit of the season, Aaron will be backed by a quintet that includes his brother, Charles, on saxophone.

If you’d rather make your own darn music (and I bet Santa would want it that way), join up with any number of neighborhood groups to sing carols in December. Faubourg Marigny carolers will meet Dec. 14 at Washington Square (Frenchmen and Royal streets) for the 24th annual Candlelight Caroling and Art Market. Following a tradition more than 60-years-old, the Patio Planters (a French Quarter garden club) will lead caroling in Jackson Square on Dec. 21. The music starts right at 7 p.m., so don’t be late!

Singing merry holiday tunes is a great way to keep warm from the inside out. An easier way is to light a big, giant fire like the one at Oak Alley Plantation’s annual Christmas Bonfire Party on Dec. 6. For the event, tour guides in antebellum dress welcome guests at the festively decorated plantation; dinner is served at chefs stations around the porch. (To exemplify dishes served, last year’s menu included canapés, profiteroles, fried dumplings, etouffee, chocolate fondue and beignets.)
After the meal, guests follow a brass band over to the levee at 8 p.m. for the conflagration and caroling along the banks of the Mississippi. (This is just a prelude to Christmas Eve, when the Lutcher bonfires along the Mississippi light the way for Papa Noel.)

While bonfires and candlelight gatherings rouse poignant memories of Christmases past, large displays of twinkle lights are the future of ocular entertainment. This year, make it down to the French Quarter on Dec. 6 (tentatively 11 a.m.) for the Christmas Parade. Revelers are gathering at the World Trade Center and parading through to the French Market – if you like shiny things, there will be more than you can shake a stick at.

Shiny things abound also at “Celebration In The Oaks,” the super-festive holiday light display put on each year by City Park. Everyone’s favorite indigenous mascot, Mr. Bingle, will be in attendance, sitting sentinel to watch over hourly showers of snow flurries. There will also be rides for kids, including City Park’s classic train and carousel, as well as Ferris Wheel and “Coney Tower” rides.

Years ago, onlookers could drive the two-mile route, but it is now, indefinitely, pedestrian-only. If the gift-giving season has left you light in the pocketbook, entry into Celebration in the Oaks is free for Friends of City Park and children under 3, and only $6 for everybody else. (Note: Celebration in the Oaks will not be open Christmas Eve or Day.)

If you’d rather not freeze your holly-jolly buns off outdoors, perhaps an elegant afternoon gathering would be your cup of tea. There are several establishments around town hosting festive holiday teas, one of which is Longue Vue House and Gardens.

Longue Vue will hold their annual holiday tea event series select Tuesdays and Thursdays, Dec. 4-30. Longue Vue visitors are invited to tour the festively decorated home, then take tea with fellow partiers. Treats such as tea sandwiches, miniature scones and sweet whipped cream, lemon curd, French pastries and, of course, English tea, will be served. On Dec. 2, Meade Wenzel demonstrates how to construct festive holiday table arrangements.

For the ritziest wee ones and their parents, The Ritz-Carlton is hosting children’s Papa Noel tea parties. The chic afternoon affairs will be held Saturdays, Dec. 7-22. Families will gather at On Trois, an elegant lounge on the hotel’s third floor, for festive music, gingerbread construction and storytelling. Bitty bon vivants are invited to snack on hot chocolate, finger sandwiches and cookies (there’s an adult tea option, too).

Monte the Lion also extends warm fuzzies by inviting kids of all ages to his “suite” French Quarter pad at the Hotel Monteleone for his annual Children’s Holiday Tea. Mom and Pop-parazzi will want to bring extra film (or memory space) because these lunches will have photo-ops galore. Furry ol’ Monte has even invited special guests including his buddy Rudolph, Santa and the Missus and even Santa’s indispensible roadies, the elves.

(Now, if there were only a way to talk to the wise guy that scheduled New Year’s a week after Christmas…)

  • The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Nov. 29-Dec. 7 (select dates). Teatro Wego, 177 Sala Ave., Westwego, 885-2000.
  • Miracle on 34th Street, Dec. 5-14 (select dates). Jefferson Performing Arts Society, 885-2000, jpas.org
  • Christmas with Aaron Neville and his quintet featuring Charles Neville, Dec. 21. House of Blues, 225 Decatur St., 310-4999, Hob.com
  • French Market Holiday Marching Bands, Dec. 11, 18, 25. 810 Decatur St., 522-2621, frenchmarket.org
  • Christmas Parade, Dec. 6. 11 a.m. World Trade Center to French Market, 522-2621, frenchmarket.org
  • 24th Annual Candlelight Caroling, Dec. 14. Washington Square (888) 312-0812, faubourgmarigny.org
  • Caroling in Jackson Square, Dec. 21. New Orleans 523-7047, patioplanters.org
  • Oak Alley Plantation’s Christmas Bonfire, Dec. 6. 3645 Highway 18, Vacherie (225) 265-2487, (800) 442-5539, oakalleyplantation.com
  • Celebration In The Oaks, Nov. 28-Dec. 30 (select dates). City Park, 11 Palm Drive, 483-9415, celebrationintheoaks.com
  • Longue Vue House and Gardens’ Holiday Tea and Tour, Dec. 4-30 (select dates). 7 Bamboo Road, 488-5488 ext. 313, longuevue.com
  • Papa Noel Tea, Dec. 6-23 (select dates). Ritz-Carlton, 921 Canal St., 524-1331, ritzcarlton.com
  • Monte the Lion’s Annual Holiday Tea, Dec. 6, 13, 20. Hotel Monteleone, 214 Royal St., 523-3341, hotelmonteleone.com