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15 ways to celebrate the holiday season around Washington — and not just with Scrooge or Santa

(Clair Rossiter for The Washington Post)
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Santas, Scrooges and flickering lights — it’s easy to fall into the same old routines this time of year, especially when confronted with the challenges of visiting relatives or last-minute shopping. But there’s always time for a new tradition: hearing an amazing piece of choral music, seeing a thought-provoking play or discovering a cozy pub with a festive atmosphere.

Let us guide you to some unexpected seasonal diversions or, at least, a place to keep the kids occupied for an afternoon.


Ballet West, out of Salt Lake City, boasts the country’s first and longest-running production of “The Nutcracker,” created by Willam Christensen in 1944. Washingtonians got a look at this vintage version of the holiday ballet in 2012 at the Kennedy Center. This year, the company returns to the Opera House with a “Nutcracker” that has undergone a $3 million makeover. The choreography is the same, but there are new sets, costumes and special effects, including a flying sled. Artistic Director Adam Sklute, who oversaw the designs in consultation with the Christensen family, has lovingly described it as “a historic treasure.” Dec. 5-9 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW.

For a non-“Nutcracker” dance option, Dance Place presents the Brooklyn-based, all-female group Cakeface in “Stairway to Stardom.” The show features clips from the 1980s’ public-access TV amateur variety show of the same name, which gained a cult following for its low-rent aesthetics. Dec. 1 and 2 at Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NE.

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In case you need it, two sturdy American dramas offer a break from the stage parade of Santas, Scrooges and musicals. “Talley’s Folly” is Lanford Wilson’s work about the difficulties of an interfaith romance (Jewish man, Protestant woman), set in 1944 Missouri; the two-character play won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Theater J, currently on the run while its home base at the Edlavitch DCJCC undergoes renovations, is producing the show at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Aaron Posner directs. Dec. 7-30 at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW.

In Bethesda, Round House Theatre is tackling August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” chronologically the earliest play (but among the last he wrote) in his sweeping “Decades Cycle” chronicling black life in 20th-century America. As usual in this series, the drama is set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, with mystical elements involving the 285-year-old Aunt Esther — who knows her history — helping sound the depths of the country’s racial divisions. Timothy Douglas directs. Nov. 28-Dec. 23 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda.

Nelson Pressley

In good cheer

Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown is a dark, cozy pub perfect for winter meals, but it’s even more special at the holidays. While some bars put up lights or a tree, Martin’s Tavern goes all out: There are snowy scenes from Christmas villages in the front windows, festive ribbons wrapped around dining room columns and, behind the bar, stockings amid fake pine branches and white lights and red velvet bows. (Everything that stands still, including the mounted fish on the wall, eventually gets decorated.) Paired with something warm and soothing — a bowl of French onion soup or the rich and cheesy Welsh rarebit — it’s the perfect seasonal destination. Martin’s Tavern, 1264 Wisconsin Ave. NW.

Helping others is second nature this time of year, and bars are happy to get in on the action. Since 2011, Pizzeria Paradiso has hosted a fundraiser for local charity Martha’s Table called Give a Can, Get a Can. It’s exactly what it sounds like: Bring a canned good that’s on the organization’s wishlist, such as pasta sauce or low-sodium vegetables, and you can trade it to a bartender for a can of selected craft beer. Bring two cans of food, and you’ll get two cans of beer. Helping others never tasted so good. Pizzeria Paradiso: Dec. 16 in Hyattsville (4800 Rhode Island Ave.), Dec. 17 in Spring Valley (4850 Massachusetts Ave.) and Dec. 18 in Dupont Circle (2003 P St. NW).

Fritz Hahn

Holiday flicks

AFI Silver Theatre can be counted on to satiate your cinematic Christmas craving, whatever it may be. From cheesy fun (“Die Hard”) to the heartwarming classic (“Miracle on 34th Street”), the Silver plays host to a varied menu of holiday goodies in December, even tossing in a few surprises in the genres of film noir (“Blast of Silence”) and horror (“Christmas Evil”). Topping off the series is a Christmas Eve screening of the perennial favorite “It’s a Wonderful Life,” paired with a book event featuring Jeremy Arnold, author of the new Turner Classic Movies guidebook “Christmas in the Movies: 30 Classics to Celebrate the Season.” Full schedule is available at .

The Turner Classic Movies channel makes it easy to settle into the holiday spirit — from your couch. Holiday fare will be sprinkled throughout December, culminating in a blizzard of seasonal favorites in the days just before Christmas. In addition to multiple versions of the Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol,” programming the weekend before Christmas includes the 1947 classic “The Bishop’s Wife.” A holiday favorite, remade with Denzel Washington in 1996 as “The Preacher’s Wife,” the movie features Cary Grant as a guardian angel sent to remind an Episcopal bishop of what matters most in life. Full schedule is available at .

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Tinsel tunes

Classical music is rife with Christmas traditions of many stripes, and many eras. To balance out the familiar rounds of “Messiahs” and “Nutcrackers,” travel back in time with Blue Heron, a vocal group specializing in Renaissance music, to medieval French and Flemish courts and such greatest composers as Josquin and Guillaume Du Fay. The Boston-based Blue Heron, celebrating its 10th season and about to launch recordings of 15th-century music, promises a blend of seasonal “mysticism and merriment.” Dec. 2 and 3 at Dumbarton Oaks, 1703 32nd St. NW. .

In 1619, students at Oxford University wrote “A Christmas Messe,” a holiday play in which the characters were components of a Christmas dinner — Trencher and Tablecloth, Bread and Salt, and King Beef and King Brawn — arguing over who should be served first, framed by soliloquies from the hungry Belly and ended by intervention from the Cooke. The Folger Consort is using this text — preserved as a manuscript in the Folger Library — as the backbone of a concert of English holiday music, from early medieval carols through Tallis and Byrd and all the way up to the Vaughan Williams arrangement of “Greensleeves.” Dec. 14-23 at Folger Theater, 201 East Capitol St. SE.

Anne Midgette

Bound to tradition

The halls of George Washington’s home Mount Vernon will be decked out for an 18th-century-style holiday season, featuring candlelit tours by a cast of Colonial characters. After a walk-through of the mansion and grounds, where you’ll hear stories of past Christmases from Martha Washington and other Mount Vernon residents, there’ll be an array of holiday activities, including dancing, caroling, music and cookies with hot cider. Nov. 23, 24 and 30 and Dec. 1, 7, 8 and 16 at Mount Vernon, 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy.

Don’t forget to bring a candle to the Holiday Sing-A-Long at Wolf Trap, where it’s tradition for carolers to end the night’s performance with a candlelight processional set to “Silent Night.” Before that, the United States Marine Band and local choirs lead the audience through a repertoire of Christmas and Hanukkah songs. And when you start to hear “Jingle Bells,” break out some of your own bells for the night’s special “Jing-A-Long.” Dec. 1 at Wolf Trap, 1551 Trap Rd., Vienna.

Don’t call him Santa Claus: At Hillwood Estate’s Russian Winter Festival, your holiday host will be Grandfather Frost, Russia’s version of Kriss Kringle. He’ll star alongside his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden, in a play at this family-friendly festival, which also has plenty of other cultural activities, including traditional dances, Russian folk music and even hatmaking. Dec. 8-9 at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, 4155 Linnean Ave. NW.

Michael Gaynor

Keep the kids merry

Introduce your preschooler to the wonders of an art museum at the Kreeger Museum’s “First Studio: Story and Workshop.” The hour-long workshop begins with a story, followed by a gallery tour and an arts activity. The three parts are grounded in the Kreeger’s collection of European and modern art from about 1850, including works by Renoir, Miro Calder and Still. December’s theme is numbers, says David Hawkins, the museum’s head of education. “We’ll count how many noses in a Picasso painting, how many creatures they can find in a Kandinsky and the stripes in a Gene Davis painting,” Hawkins says. “The goal is to help youngsters experience a museum environment.” Dec. 1 and 15 at the Kreeger Museum, 2401 Foxhall Rd. NW. .

Tell the gang you’re going for the superheroes, then stay for the galleries that reveal the breadth of American history and ingenuity. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s new exhibit “Superheroes,” on the first floor of the East Wing, is perfectly timed for holiday visitors and school closures. The display features comic books and original comic art as well as memorabilia and props, such as a Wonder Woman lunchbox and a Captain America shield. There are movie and television costumes, too, including Halle Berry’s Storm costume from the 2014 film “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” Daily, except Dec. 25, at the National Museum of American History, Constitution Avenue NW between 12th and 14th Streets.

Peggy McGlone