The holiday season can be tough on the wallet. However, places such as local libraries and park and rec departments provide ways for families to enjoy the season on the cheap. Here are some upcoming free (or nearly free) holiday activities for kids:

During the upcoming "Gingerbread Boy" event at Hastings' Pleasant Hill Library from 10:15-11:45 a.m. on Friday, kids ages 3 to 5 can enjoy jingle bell parachute activities, listen to holiday stories, toss beanbags into Santa hats and do cookie counting and matching activities. They also can decorate gingerbread boy patterns, make gift bags and create folk art stockings, and crawl into a "bear den" to read books by flashlight.

"It's a big morning," said head children's librarian Barb Simmons. Space is limited, so parents should register in advance.

Then from 10:30-11:30 a.m. Dec. 22 at the Hastings library, a "Make and Take: Greeting Cards" workshop for children ages 2 to 12 will give kids a chance to embellish greeting cards with stamps, stickers, ribbons and glitter.

The Inver Glen Library in Inver Grove Heights holds its "Home for the Holidays Storytime" from 10:30-11 a.m. Thursday. Preschoolers through age 6 will listen to Hannukah and holiday stories, sing songs and do coloring sheets and a holiday craft.

At Lakeville's Heritage Library, children's and teens' librarian Martha Bisek says the library will offer "Christmas in the Little House," featuring readings from the Christmas chapters of "some beloved books by Laura Ingalls Wilder." The event, for kids ages 4 to 12, is scheduled for 4-5 p.m. Dec. 21.

"There's some nice stories in there," Bisek said. "Laura Ingalls is one that is good to go back and reread. We're reading from a little bit older book, but the younger kids really enjoy it. Kids just love to be read to."

The Lakeville library also plans a "Here Comes Santa Claus Storytime" from 10:30-11 a.m. Dec. 20, with stories and songs featuring Santa Claus for preschoolers through age 6.

South St. Paul community affairs liaison Deb Griffith said that last year's "Skate with Santa" in South St. Paul drew close to 300 families. "Santa is an expert skater here at South St. Paul," she said. "The ice was full. It was great to see it."

This year's event, set for 10:40-11:40 a.m. Saturday at the Wakota Arena, 141 Sixth St. S., will include holiday music, treats, photos with Santa and games like "Guess how many marshmallows are in the jar." Admission is free, but guests are encouraged to bring a non-perishable food item or a toy, which will be donated to Neighbors Inc.

The Apple Valley Sports Arena at 14452 Hayes Road will offer a "Skate with Santa Claus" event from 3:30-5 p.m. next Sunday, Dec. 19. Cost is $4 for the open skating fee, but otherwise the event -- which will include apple cider and treats, holiday music and face painting -- is free. "All of that is a little extra, a little bonus, said Marcie Padgett of the Apple Valley Parks and Rec Department. "It's just been a real fun thing that we get a lot of positive feedback about."

During Inver Grove Heights' "Holiday on Main Street" activities from 2-5:30 p.m. Saturday at the Veterans Memorial Community Center, kids can visit Santa, take Humvee rides with the National Guard, and register for toy drawings. They also will get free meal tickets for hot dogs and cookies, and will be able to enjoy games, facepainting, crazy hair and balloon animals. Free trolley rides will be available from 6:30-9:30 p.m.; tickets are available in advance at the Parks and Rec office or at ACE Hardware.

A candy cane hunt is planned for 10 a.m. Saturday at South Valley Park in Inver Grove Heights. For a $2 registration fee, kids will be able to hunt for candy canes throughout the park. Those who find special red, green or gold candy canes will win prizes, and kids can enjoy hot cocoa and cookies following the hunt.

Liz Rolfsmeier is a Minneapolis freelance writer.