THE HOLIDAY SEASON, it is often said, is not the most inexpensive stretch on the calendar. It isn't only the presents and stocking stuffers that have us spending, but the travel to various events, the stay-over spots, the party outfits (because our former party outfit is now missing most of its sequins from years of use). Thus finding diversions of the discounted, deal-nice, or totally free sort, diversions that have some of the delight of the season, is a most noble goal. And if you can get some cheer from the process, or some peace of mind, or some combination of the two, even better. Consider spending the last few days of 2016 (and the beginning of 2017) making for the following spots, and not spending a bundle, or even a half bundle, doing so. Try the...
SAN FRANCISCO BOTANICAL GARDEN: This plant-pretty 55-acre spread at Golden Gate Park waives admission on Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Will communing with the redwoods clear your mind of some of the seasonal stresses? Those old trees are very good listeners. There are some 8,000 different flora types in all inside the park, so you have a lot of communing to do.
GINGERBREAD WONDERLAND: A grand hotel is a pretty dramatic sight, but a grand hotel with a gingerbread display in the lobby? It's a staple of ye olde yuletides gone by. But the best bit, beyond the spicy scent of the cookie structures, is they're all totally free to see, and you don't even need to be a guest of the hotel. Two spots to call upon around the city include the Westin St. Francis and The Fairmont San Francisco, which has a two-story gingerbread house.
CHRISTMAS TREE LANE: Follow the twinkling bulbs and dazzling doodads lining this Alameda favorite to a magical letterbox. Drop a missive to Mr. Claus in the box "by Dec. 21" and bingo! The Jolly Ol' Elf will send a note back. Even if you don't have a letter to post to Kris Kringle, calling upon this merry area is an instant mood booster. Also? It doesn't cost a thing to see. Santa, by the by, is saying hello to visitors through the 23rd, though the lights are on through New Year's.
WINSOME WINDOW WOOFERS: Pet-sweet adoptions happen in all kinds of places and spaces, but one of the most unusual spots to meet your new BFF is through a department store window. But this Macy's seasonal story is a bit magical: The San Francisco SPCA and the Union Square store are featuring adoptable cuties in the window through Sunday, Jan. 1. And while this is technically free to do, prepare to fall in love, then adopt, then tenderly care for your pal for many years to come. Because this, of course, isn't just a lighthearted show or passing event; these pups are beautiful beings in need of loving homes. Could that be your home, just possibly? Say yes. If you can't adopt right now, perhaps you can make a donation to the SPCA.
FIRST DAY HIKES: If you plan on being up with the morning birds, or at least not too long after dawn, on Sunday, Jan. 1, you can start 2017 in a positive, fresh-air'd way, by joining a First Day Hike at a California State Park. These guided walks are all about seeing some nature and sky before the rush of the year whooshes over us, which, it can be said, is a most excellent way to start this new venture. Connecting with the wilder world before we return to our workaday lives is just the tonic needed on the first day of the year (or any day of the year, truly).