Home for the Holidays in Cincinnati

Cincinnati always seems to provide a wealth of holiday arts and entertainment, from the sacred to the silly, the profound to the prosaic, the ingrained to the innovative. The choices abound for sharing the season with family and friends. Here’s a just-shy-of-two-dozen group of selections worth checking out.

–By Ray Cooklis

Great Local Traditions

The Cincinnati Zoo’s 36th annual PNC Festival of Lights, through
Jan. 1, is a spectacle you won’t want to miss. It has been voted the top zoo-light show in the nation, with the zoo’s already gorgeous botanical gardens festooned with 3 million LED lights. With activities like Santa visits, train rides, puppet shows and even s’mores to snack on, there’s something for everyone. cincinnatizoo.org

The season wouldn’t be quite right without a Holiday Pops show at Music Hall – so once again, Cincinnati Pops presents its seasonal spectacular Dec. 7-9 (8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday). Maestro John Morris Russell will be joined by Ashley Brown in what is always a high-energy show, with traditional holiday favorites performed in the Pops’ trademark style. cincinnatisymphony.org

Cincinnati Ballet’s beloved Nutcracker production has it all – gorgeous set design and costumes, delightful special effects, classic choreography and spectacular dancing, not to mention Tchaikovsky’s familiar yet always fresh-sounding music. A great local tradition, Dec. 13-24. cballet.org

Christ Church Cathedral describes its 79th annual (yes, that’s a 79) Boar’s Head and Yule Log Festival as “a Christmas gift to the people of Cincinnati.” The free program, a traditional medieval take on the season, always plays to a packed house. It features a volunteer cast, orchestra, costumes and lighting to create special holiday cheer. This year’s event is 5 p.m. on Dec. 29 and 2:30 and 5 p.m. on Dec. 30. Tickets required; public ticket distribution is 8 a.m. on Dec. 8. boarsheadfestival.com and cincinnaticathedral.com

Speaking of traditions, generations of Cincinnatians fondly remember trekking downtown with their parents to view the awe-inspiring Cincinnati Gas & Electric Holiday Train display in the CG&E lobby on Fourth Street. A few years ago, the display – now known as the Duke Energy Holiday Train display – moved to Union Terminal, where Cincinnati Museum Center staff took over its upkeep. After a two-year hiatus during the renovation of Union Terminal, it’s back. Holiday Junction, featuring the Duke Energy Trains, is open through Jan. 27 at Cincinnati Museum Centercincymuseum.org

There’s more model railroad fun on track at Northern Kentucky’s Behringer-Crawford Museum. The 27th annual Holiday Toy Trains display runs through the holiday season. This display of vintage train sets even offers some guest-operated features, and it’s part of the museum’s Holiday Central celebration. bcmuseum.org

Chorals and Carols

For many, it wouldn’t be Christmas without Handel’s “Messiah,” and local performances will carry on that tradition. The Knox Music Series at Knox Presbyterian Church, one of the area’s premier church music programs, presents the complete “Messiah” at 4 p.m. Dec. 23 in the Hyde Park church, featuring the Knox choir, soloists and orchestra. knox.org

Meanwhile, the innovative, barrier-breaking Collegium Cincinnati has created its own “Messiah” tradition, with a performance scheduled for 6 p.m. Dec. 9 in Christ Church Cathedral. The cathedral’s ensemble-in-residence will be joined by the Cincinnati Boychoir in Handel’s music. collegiumcincinnati.org

The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music offers its own tradition, the Feast of Carols, set for Corbett Auditorium on campus at 2 and 5 p.m. on Dec. 8 and 9. The program includes a vast assortment of carols and other holiday favorites, featuring CCM choirs and orchestras, as well as guest choirs from top area high school programs. ccm.uc.edu

God bless us, every one: Tiny Tim, Ebenezer Scrooge and the rest of the memorable characters from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” rule the Marx Theatre at Playhouse in the Park yet again this year, running Nov. 21-Dec. 29. The adaptation by Howard Dallin is always one of the Playhouse’s most popular shows, full of special effects, rich costuming, humor and pathos and, of course, a transformational story most fitting for the season. cincyplay.com

The outstanding Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati presents its Candlelit Christmas program of holiday carols and other favorites at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 15 and 4 p.m. on Dec. 16 in Memorial Hall. Stephanie Nash conducts. With VAE’s gorgeous choral sound enhanced by the handbells of the Cincinnati Collaborative Ringing Project, the program should create a warm, reflective atmosphere for the holidays. vaecinci.org

For the Family

The Cincinnati Boychoir is back with its annual Sing Me a Story holiday show. This year it’s “The Night Before Christmas,” which features the classic poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in English and Spanish, along with a program of holiday songs. The one-hour family concert is at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 8 at the Aronoff Center downtown. Jazz great Kathy Wade is featured, and youngsters in the audience get crayons to color along to the story. cincinnatiarts.org

The Cincinnati Youth Choir, which includes choirs from CCM and elsewhere, performs its Singing in the Season concert at 2 and 5 p.m. Dec. 15 in Corbett Auditorium. The program includes holiday songs from throughout the world. ccm.uc.edu

Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati presents “Santa Claus: The Musical” Dec. 8-17 at the Taft Theatre downtown. The show, featuring Local 12’s Bob Herzog, is an hourlong update on the Santa saga, filled with music and humor for kids ages 4 and up. thechildrenstheatre.com

Not enough Santa? The Children’s Theatre brings Santa and his reindeer to town for a kids’ Cookies with Santa event 1-5 p.m. Dec. 2 at the theater, 4015 Red Bank Road. Besides the up-close-and-personal time with The Big Guy, there’s a midafternoon performance of “Reindeer Games.” thechildrenstheatre.com

The Krohn Conservatory in Eden Park, one of Cincinnati’s most family-friendly venues, presents A Crystal Holiday, through Jan. 6, featuring holiday flowers, frozen landscapes, (more!) model trains and displays of miniaturized Cincinnati landmarks and buildings created by Applied Imaginations using natural materials. cincinnatiparks.com/krohn

If you’ve always known you can sing the Hallelujah Chorus as well as the next guy, the B.E.S.T. “Messiah” Sing-Along at St. Thomas Episcopal Church is definitely for you. B.E.S.T. stands for the Bach Ensemble of St. Thomas, directed by Carlton Monroe, who will lead the fourth annual audience sing-along at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 17 at the Terrace Park church. Guest artists sing the recitatives and arias, and listeners join in on the choruses. You can take your own “Messiah” score (show off!) or borrow one there. stthomasepiscopal.org

Not Your Grandpa’s Holiday

If it’s irreverence you’re after, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s off-kilter “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some)” should fit the bill. A wacky 90-minute mash-up of everything from “It’s a Wonderful Life” to “A Christmas Carol” to Charlie Brown, it’s set for Dec. 14-30 at the Shakes, 1195 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine. cincyshakes.com

Speaking of Over-the-Rhine, the local folk band by that name makes its now traditional holiday appearance with the show, “An Acoustic Christmas with Over the Rhine,” Dec. 21-23 at Memorial Hall. The band, founded by Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, has created Christmas-themed music almost since its founding more than 20 years ago, and will continue, what Detweiler promises will be, “making an intimate but hopefully holy ruckus” with this year’s show. memorialhallotr.org

And speaking of a holy ruckus, the boys are back – the boys of 98°, that is. Aronoff Center is the setting for their “98° at Christmas” concert at 8 p.m. on Nov. 24. Like OTR, a locally sourced group, Lachey & Co. has been around for two decades with their four-part harmonies and R&B stylings. Last year’s full-length holiday album, “Let it Snow,” sets them up as
Christmas crooners. cincinnatiarts.org

Well, maybe Nat King Cole would be your grandpa’s holiday thing. Nevertheless, “An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas,” starring Evan Tyrone Martin, marks a different twist on the season. Chicagoan Martin reproduces the jazz great’s classic, velvety vocal style in a program of Cole hits such as “Mona Lisa,” “The Christmas Song” and “All I Want for Christmas.” The show is at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 5-7 at the Aronoff Center. cincinnatiarts.org

Among jazz legend Duke Ellington’s astounding body of work is his “Nutcracker Suite,” a jazz transformation of Tchaikovsky’s score that is considered one of Ellington’s finer achievements. The College-Conservatory of Music Jazz Orchestra, Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Lab Band perform the suite at 4 p.m. Dec. 2 in Corbett Auditorium, with CCM musical theater students adding choreography. ccm.uc.edu

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