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Taking the Kids -- and lighting up the holidays

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    Christmas Around the World at the Museum of Science and Industry. (J.B. Spector)

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    Santa parachutes in to the Festival of Lights at Moody Gardens. (Moody Gardens)

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    Jungle Bells at the San Diego Zoo. (San Diego Zoo)

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    Conner Prairie Interactive History Parks Gingerbread Village. (Connor Prairie)

Ready to light up the holidays?

I'm not talking about the strings of holiday lights you are busy hanging around your house. (Why is it they're always so tangled when you take them out?)

I'm talking about holiday light displays that seem to go up earlier, get bigger and more elaborate every year. It's worth the effort, I promise, to take the kids and grandkids. For a few hours you can forget the baking, the shopping and the wrapping and just enjoy the holidays and each other. You might even start a family tradition -- or continue one from when you were a child -- at lots of places beyond the local mall. (My kids always bawled when I tried to get that picture with Santa, anyway.)

That's assuming it isn't freezing and you don't have any misadventures along the way. They're memorable too, of course. We still tease my older daughter Regina, about the time she got her lips stuck when she tried to "kiss" the doors of the Museum of Science and Industry one sub-zero day in Chicago.

Reggie was a preschooler and we'd gone to see the famous Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Lights exhibit that boasts 51 gaily decorated trees strung with thousands of lights and ornaments decorated by volunteers from Chicago's ethnic communities and designed to represent their cultures and traditions. She was just trying to "thank" the museum for such a fun day.

We've made "Seeing the Lights" part of our multicultural holiday celebrations wherever we find ourselves over the holidays -- visiting the in-laws in Austin, Texas (Zilker Park's "Trail of Lights," is a mile-long stretch with seasonal scenes composed of multicolored twinkling lights), visiting friends in Jackson Hole, Wyo., (thousands of LED lights are wrapped around the famous elk antler arches and strung around the trees at the Town Square) or Colonial Williamsburg where we could travel back to Revolutionary War times and see how the holidays were celebrated then. One year after Thanksgiving with relatives, we found ourselves in Palm Desert, Calif., where the kids loved the spectacle at the Living Desert zoo and botanical garden, which features thousands of lights.

Last Christmas, I even shared the holiday lights with my youngest daughter Mel in Hong Kong. (More about that frenetic holiday in an upcoming column.)

The other day, walking past Rockefeller Center in the middle of Manhattan and the 80-foot Christmas spruce illuminating the Big Apple this holiday season, I smiled thinking of all the years when I was a kid and we trekked in to see the tree and all the displays on Fifth Avenue. Somehow it didn't seem as crowded as it does now.

Of course you don't have to trek into a big city to enjoy fabulous holiday displays. The Coeur d'Alene Resort in Idaho launches the largest water holiday show in America on Friday, Nov 23, offering more than 1.5 million lights, 250 displays and a 160-foot tall living Christmas tree. Check out the largest holiday light festival on the Gulf Coast in Galveston, Texas, at the Festival of Lights at Moody Gardens with a mile-long trail of more than 100 lighted holiday scenes. Virtually every house in McAdenville, N.C., is decorated, making it a must-see for North Carolinians and Hershey, Pa., lights up with 2 million twinkling lights.

We've got "Fifty-Plus Great Places to See the Holiday Lights in 2012" and hopefully start, or continue, a tradition with your kids and grandkids.

Here are six ideas guaranteed to please:

-- Check out a new neighborhood famous for their lights like Candy Cane Lane in Woodland Hills, Calif. (They've been at it for more than a half-century.) Or try the Candy Cane Lane that stretches for four blocks just north of Oklahoma Avenue in the West Allis neighborhood of Milwaukee.

-- Head to your favorite museum. At the annual Jolly Days Winter Wonderland exhibit at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, the largest in the country, where among other things, the kids can climb and slide on the Snow Castle and pose for a picture with Santa who incidentally arrived in a race car. Seeing the Origami Tree at the American Museum of Natural History is a holiday tradition for NYC families; the fantastic ornaments hand-folded by volunteers mimic the museum's collections.

-- Talk to the animals at your local zoo. During Wild Holidays at the San Diego Zoo Wild Animal Park you can make toys for the animals or join the festivities at the San Diego Zoo, which stays open late each evening for its Jungle Bells celebration, complete with a nightly tree-lighting ceremony and lighted animal figures everywhere. There are nearly a million lights illuminating America's only Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colo. 

-- Time travel at a living history museum. You can visit 1876 New England at a Lantern Light Tour at Mystic Seaport. Take a holiday stroll with a costumed interpreter along the Freedom Trail in Boston or check in on Revolutionary War holidays at Yorktown Victory Center in Virginia and those experienced by the early colonists at Jamestown Settlement.

-- Get inspired to build a gingerbread house. You'll see dozens on display in the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park's Gingerbread Village-- each submitted as part of the annual gingerbread competition. Or watch the life-size gingerbread house being constructed at Great Wolf Lodges throughout December.

-- Go to the park. In Charleston, S.C. Charleston boasts more than 2 million lights and hundreds of displays at its Holiday Festival of Lights in James Island County Park. St. Paul touts Holiday Lights in the Park with more than 50 huge light sculptures in Phalen Park.

Save a candy cane for me.

Eileen Ogintz is a nationally syndicated columnist and creator of TakingtheKids.com. Her new  Kids Guide to Boston is available online and from major booksellers, along with the Kids Guides to NYC, Washington, DC, Orlando,  LA and Chicago. Coming  later this year: San Diego, San Francisco and Denver.