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Saturday, December 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Yuletide in Madison: This holiday season, give yourself the gift of live entertainment
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Credit:James Campbell

Nights are getting longer, trees are getting barer and mall-goers are getting acquainted with the 734th version of "Little Drummer Boy." It's that magical time of year when families gather 'round the hearth, children ring around the tree and I consume my weight in eggnog. Do you hear what I hear?

Door-to-door carols, Christmas craft sales, 17 variations of The Nutcracker - if you celebrate our predominant culture's winter holiday of choice, you have a bevy of arts and entertainment options at your disposal this season.

If you don't, well, I'll see you in January.

Kiddie Christmas

Soon the rugrats will be out of school and demanding that you create lasting holiday memories for them. Fortunately, Madison offers a broad assortment of munchkin-friendly events.

What's Christmas without an animated reindeer light sculpture? Start the holidays out right at Holiday Fantasy in Lights (Olin Park, through Jan. 2), where you can crank up the carols and cruise through a dazzling festival of light.

If that doesn't satisfy your dazzle quota for the season, head to UW's Chemistry building Dec. 10 and 11 (1 and 4 p.m.) for "Once Upon a Christmas Cheery, in the Lab of Shakhashiri" where professor Bassam Shakhashiri celebrates the holidays the way our heavenly father intended: by blowing shit up. Chemistry never looked so Christmasy.

Dust off your holiday songbook on Nov. 26 for Madison Symphony Orchestra's Community Christmas Carol Sing, 7 p.m. at Overture Hall. Tune up and sing it out; lip-synchers need not apply.

Is your second-grader a connoisseur of Welsh poetry? Then get thee to Lakeview Library at 2 p.m. on Dec. 3 for a live performance of Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales. For a more conventional take on the Christmas canon, Scrooge it up at Overture Center's Capitol Theater for Children's Theater of Madison's A Christmas Carol (Dec. 9-23).

Merry melodies

Music has always played a starring role in seasonal celebrations, so it's no surprise that many of your options for spreading yuletide joy are tuneful in nature.

Kick things off at Middleton's Marriott-West Nov. 26 (8 p.m.) and 27 (1 p.m.) with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's Holiday Pops concert starring American Idol finalist AJ Gil and the Middleton High School concert choir. I couldn't pick AJ Gil out of a lineup, but I assume there will be a certain amount of girlish squealing in the crowd. Gil is from the first season of the show, which is coincidentally the only season I've watched, but Kelly Clarkson is my imaginary girlfriend, so I don't remember anyone but her.

If American Idol is too gauche for your Christmas needs, you may prefer John DeMain's Christmas Spectacular with Madison Symphony Orchestra, featuring guest soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine and bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen. Don your festive finest and head to Overture Hall Dec. 2 (7:30 p.m.), 3 (8 p.m.) and 4 (2:30 p.m.) for an erudite earful.

If you prefer your Christmas music old-school, the WCO shifts from secular to sacred in performing Handel's Messiah at Blackhawk Evangelical Church in Middleton (Dec. 9, 7 p.m.). Elsewhere, Madison Bach Musicians perform Renaissance and Baroque holiday tunes Dec. 16 at First Congregational Church (7:30 p.m.), and the Oakwood Chamber Players present their Christmas concert at Oakwood Village-West on Nov. 25 (2:30 and 7 p.m.).

For something a little brassier, visit the Capitol at 2 p.m. on Dec. 10 for TubaChristmas, where as many as 100 tubas, euphoniums and baritones fill the Rotunda with Christmas cheer.

For a show that's just as loud but with flashier production values, have your mind blown at 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 20 by Mannheim Steamroller in Overture Hall. The show is likely to include a blend of baroque classical music, light jazz and synchronized laser light. Twenty million record sales can't be wrong...right?

Once you've relived the 1980s with the Steamroller, you can relive the 1480s at UW Memorial Union. Stuff your face with roast pork and figgy pudding, accompanied by the Philharmonic Chorus of Madison, at the 78th Annual Wisconsin Union Tudor Holiday Dinner Concert, Nov. 30-Dec. 6. There will be songs and costumes and most likely copious amounts of wine. The agenda also includes an item called "Presentation of the Boar's Head" so, you know, there's that.

If Tudor-style debauchery isn't hip enough for you, visit the Crystal Corner at 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 17 for the seventh annual Destroy All Christmas show. Details are still being finalized, but past years have featured free comic books, scantily clad ladies and the screamy stylings of Madison-based metal trio Droids Attack. What more could you need?

For another liquor-fueled extravaganza of fun, check out Waylan St. Palan and the Magic Elves at the High Noon Saloon at on Dec. 16 (9 p.m.). This Christmas-only pop-up band fronted by the Hometown Sweethearts' Nate Palan promises to ring in the solstice with a level of debauchery the ancient pagans would have approved.

Last but not least, wry Madison folk legends Lou & Peter Berryman present "Santa Claustrophobia" at Stoughton Opera House on Dec. 2 (2 p.m.).

Solstice the season

If Christianity is the predominant culture in Madison, the second-place winner is definitely hippiedom. Actually, it might be the other way around. Either way, there's more than one winter solstice celebration in town, so you have some options for getting your yule log on.

Celebrate the longest night of the year with a hike under the stars at Aldo Leopold Nature Center's Winter Solstice Celebration on Dec. 16 (6:30 p.m.). Warm up by the yuletide fire and munch some solstice snacks as you learn about ancient customs and folklore.

If you prefer to observe the solstice from the comfort of central heating, you may want to check out the Winter Solstice Pageant, a Dec. 16 benefit for Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve. It will be held at the First Unitarian Society (7 p.m.) and features a candlelight meditation, yuletide music and costumed characters representing solstice customs and lore. I'm not sure what "yuletide music" involves, but I'm guessing some sort of pan flute.

Out and about

What pairs better with the holidays than a tall glass of pinot noir? Visit Wollersheim Winery at 10 a.m. on Nov. 26 for A Vintage Christmas and soak in the quaintness.

If you don't feel like making the trek to Prairie du Sac, Nov. 26 is also the Downtown Madison Holiday Open House, a kid-friendly shopping and eating extravaganza (10 a.m.-6 p.m.). Stop by Community Pharmacy for a free organic lollipop, then visit Fontana Sports Specialties to see Santa's elves make moisture-wicking socks for the good little girls and boys.

On the west side of things, join the Monroe Street Carolers at the Monroe Street Christmas Walk on Dec. 4 (noon-4 p.m.). Pick up some Two Buck Chuck for me at Trader Joe's while you're in the hood. Back east, the Atwood-Winnebago Winter Festival provides opportunities for merriment on Dec. 2 (5-9 p.m.).

If you prefer festivities of a gubernatorial nature, occupy the future former residence of Gov. Scott Walker for the annual Governor's Mansion Holiday Tours, beginning Dec 7. I heard they have a really big tree.

Save the last dance

I love to dance. As a child I dreamed of dancing with the Royal Ballet, or at least the Fly Girls, but as an adult my dancing is confined to my bedroom while listening to Katy Perry. My arrhythmic moves may not be fit for public consumption, but fortunately this winter you can watch people who do this for a living.

I've seen The Nutcracker approximately 12 times, but all I remember is some sort of nightmare acid-trip snowflake dance. I'm told there's more to it than that. Madison Ballet's Nutcracker is Dec. 17-26 in Overture Hall, and Dance Wisconsin's Nutcracker Fantasy runs Dec. 3 (2 & 7:30 p.m.) and 4 (2 p.m.) at Wisconsin Union Theater.

If you're looking for a nut-free Nutcracker alternative, the poignant and hilarious (if not strictly Christmasy) Knotcracker will be presented by Li Chiao-Ping Dance in Overture Center's Promenade Hall Dec. 1 (7:30 p.m.), 2 (7:30 p.m.), 3 (2 & 7:30 p.m.) and 4 (2 p.m.).

Acting out

Tragedy! Comedy! Those little masks with the smiley and frowny faces! Who doesn't love the theater? Terrible people, that's who, but you're not a terrible person, so you'll likely see one of the many holiday-themed productions Madison offers this winter.

If you know who John Waters is, you are probably very hip and with it. You're probably so hip and with it that I don't have to tell you he's coming to the Barrymore Theatre at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 14. Buy your tix for John Waters Christmas and bask in the glory of the cult filmmaker's rapid-fire monologue. It promises to put the "X" in Xmas.

For something a little lower key (or at least lower budget), check out Ghosts of Christmas Past at Broom Street Theater through Dec. 18. Written and directed by Christina Beller and Scott Rawson, the show offers stories both sweet and strange to put you in the holiday spirit. In Spring Green, American Players Theatre again stages The Gift of the Magi (Dec. 20-Nov. 18), the company's musical adaptation of O. Henry's story.

Back at the Barrymore, the Bricks Theatre resurrects last year's successful production of The Santaland Diaries, a laugh-out-loud funny adaptation of the David Sedaris essay of the same name. Stop by Dec. 8 (7:30 p.m.), 9 (8 p.m.), 10 (8 p.m.) and 11 (5 p.m.) and see Peter Hunt reprise his role as a disillusioned Macy's elf. But leave the kids at home - he's not that kind of elf.

For another laugh riot, head to Overture Center's Playhouse Nov. 29-Dec. 18 for Guys on Ice, which sounds like a gay figure-skating revue but is actually a show about ice fishing. Overture Center calls Guys on Ice the "most beloved Wisconsin musical of all time." Since no other Wisconsin musicals are leaping to mind, I say let's go with it, though between you and me I'd rather watch attractive men in spandex do triple axels to the Avenue Q soundtrack. Can we arrange this?

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