By Calie Joy Herbst Special to Published Dec 09, 2013 at 6:11 PM

Downtown may not be the first place you think of to find family-friendly holiday fun, but it should be! Milwaukee's Dwnowntown is looking festive with holiday decorations and bustling with free and inexpensive family-friendly events throughout the entire month of December.

Cathedral Square is drumming up community spirit this year with 60 new evergreen trees decorated by over 2,000 Milwaukee area schoolchildren. Each classroom chose a different theme and decorated their ornaments by hand. You'll be inspired by the uplifting messages and colorful designs.

While visiting Cathedral Square, your kids can drop off their Christmas wish list to Santa's Mailbox on Kilbourn Avenue. The bright red mailbox is clearly labeled and easy to find. It's easy to imagine how exciting it would be for a child to drop off a letter in this whimsical mailbox.

All kids who drop off a letter by Sunday, Dec. 15 will get a personalized letter in return. You don't need to include a stamp, but don't forget to include your return address.

Cathedral Square will also host the Clauses for its "Cocoa with the Clauses" event Saturday, Dec. 14 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Mr. and Mrs. Claus will be there, along with their elves and other holiday mascots, to listen to your kids' wishes and snap photos. There will be other family-friendly games and face-painting, too!

If you get there early enough, you may be able to enjoy some free cookies and hot cocoa. Area restaurants are even offering kids lunch specials that day. Check them out here.

In nearby Pere Marquette Park, "Electric Elves" from the North Pole finish up their holiday tasks to help Santa prepare for his big night. Some elves are shopping, others are decorating, and more are shipping out gifts by plane and train. The scene is playful and bright, and fun to walk through.

Zeidler Union Square chose Musical Bears as the theme for their holiday lights this year, much to my two-year-old's delight. You'll see bears playing all kinds of instruments and making cheerful holiday music. Your kids can try to spot the legendary giant red teddy among the lively decorations.

Finally, BMO Harris Bank provides downtown's most unexpected holiday display with their "Holiday Busy Town," featuring over 150 life size stuffed animals and fresh evergreen trees. Not only is the display completely free to visit, but the bank will donate $5 to Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin with every visitor.

You can drive yourself around to take in the downtown holiday lights, but you can also check them out aboard the $1 Jingle Bus. Coach buses depart from Grand Avenue every fifteen minutes Thursdays through Sundays from 6 to 9 p.m. and take passengers on a 40-minute narrated tour of the downtown lights and decorations.

Park in the Grand Avenue parking structure for only $3 and purchase your jingle bus tickets at Center Court in Grand Ave.

This Saturday, while we waited for the jingling bells indicating it was time for us to board the Jingle Bus, we enjoyed a free holiday sugar cookie and delicious hot cocoa from the Wild Flour Bakery and sang along with the Leonard Bearstein Symphony Orchestra.

On our trip, the journey included holiday music and a group recital of jingle bells. We even learned a thing or two about Milwaukee that we didn't know before. (Did you know the gas lamp used to be a real flame prior to the 1950s?)

Check out to find out about even more special holiday events and activities, including ice skating at Red Arrow Park, Jolly's Outdoor Gingerbread House in Catalano Square and the Christmas Around Milwaukee Bakery Bus Tour.

Calie Joy Herbst Special to
Calie Herbst is a teacher in Milwaukee Public Schools and editor of She received a Bachelors in Spanish and Sociology from UW-Madison and a Masters of Teaching Spanish from Marquette.

She has travelled extensively through the Spanish-speaking world, but her favorite place in the world is Milwaukee. She lives in Bay View with her husband, two year old son, Hudson and her two dogs. She and her family love to check out the latest events in Milwaukee and spend time at their cabin in Winter, Wis.

In her free time, her ideal self enjoys doing yoga, reading one book a week, and cooking with organic, local foods. Her real self just ends up watching terrible reality television.