The holiday season is one of traditions. Maybe you always see the same show, go to the same tree-lighting, eat the same food. And with a tightly packed few weeks of parties, dinners and family visits, it can be hard to even think about changing your routine.

That's where we come in. Our critics have picked their best bets in the world of theater, film, music, dance, food and drink. Plus, we've compiled lists of classic (water-skiing Santa!) and offbeat (Italian bagpipers?) events.

Whatever holidays you celebrate, make 'em happy.


Dickens is a given throughout the holiday season, especially in the big traditional staging annually on view at Ford's Theatre. Big musicals are high-kicking on practically every corner now, too. But simple pleasures in small rooms can sometimes be the ticket. Here are three possibilities. -- Nelson Pressley

A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas
This is actor Paul Morella's solo retelling of the chestnut, and it goes straight to the source - Charles Dickens's 1843 novella. Morella has been performing this for several seasons now in Olney Theatre's coziest room, the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, and this year he promises to add subtle layers of scenery and sound. The essence doesn't seem likely to change, though. The show runs on acting ingenuity and old-school literary flair; Morella's faith in Dickens's descriptions is refreshing.

Nov. 27-Dec. 27 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. 301-924-3400. $18-$36.

It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
Washington Stage Guild stages its rendition of the classic redemption story (best known as the Frank Capra film) in its Massachusetts Avenue church auditorium digs. The production features a promising cast that includes Lawrence Redmond and Julie-Ann Elliott, and Joe Landry's adaptation is an ode to old-time radio. The company has dedicated the production to the late Ed Walker, the longtime host of WAMU's Sunday night program "The Big Broadcast."

Through Dec. 6 at the Undercroft Theater of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. 240-582-0050. $40-$50.

Christmas With Nova Y. Payton and Friends
For something less traditional, this cabaret is hosted by popular singer-actress Nova Y. Payton ("Dreamgirls," "Hairspray," "Xanadu") at Signature Theatre on its smaller Ark stage. The live music can hardly fail to please: The instrumentalists are always up to scratch at Signature, where Payton has become a fixture because of her ability to navigate hairpin vocal lines like a pro skater zigging around the ice. (Not for nothing has she done "Dreamgirls" in multiple cities.) A chorus, band and favorite songs are on tap.

Dec. 8-24 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-820-9771. $35.


With this time of year comes a chance to revel in the joys of family, friendship and community. Soon area residents will be hanging mistletoe, lighting Christmas trees and Hanukkah menorahs, and celebrating the seven principles of Kwanzaa. Don't miss these classic holiday events for the whole family. -- Macy Freeman

National Christmas Tree lighting
Bundle up and head to the annual lighting of the National Christmas Tree. It has been 92 years since President Calvin Coolidge first did the honors, and the festivities are still going strong. This year's musical lineup includes Aloe Blacc, Andra Day,Tori Kelly and Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Dec. 3 at 5 p.m. at President's Park, 1450 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Free; tickets required.

The Christmas Revels
The Washington Revels return with their 33rd annual production of "The Christmas Revels." This festive production - with a cast of 100 - combines music, dance and drama, and the audience is encouraged to sing and dance along. This year's theme is "A Medieval Celebration of the Winter Solstice."
Dec. 5-13 at Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. NW. 202-994-6800. $12-$60.

National Menorah lighting

The lighting of the National Hanukkah Menorah on the Ellipse features a performance by the United States Marine Band, hot latkes and donuts and more.

Dec. 6 at 4 p.m. on the Ellipse, 1600 Constitution Ave. NW. Free; tickets required.

Kwanzaa in music and dance
Celebrate Kwanzaa with African dance, music and storytelling presented by Coyoba Dance Theater - it's high energy all around.

Dec. 12 at 2 and 8 p.m. and Dec. 13 at 4 p.m. Dance Place, 225 Eighth St. NE. $25-$30.

Festivities at the Kennedy Center
Bring your tuba or just come to listen - the annual TubaChristmas is great fun either way, with hundreds of tuba, sousaphone and euphonium players performing holiday songs. For more refined tastes, the National Symphony Orchestra takes the stage the next day, performing Handel's "Messiah," conducted by the contralto Nathalie Stutzmann. (For a more interactive experience, the Kennedy Center's free "Messiah" singalong is Dec. 23.)

TubaChristmas: Dec. 16 at 6 p.m. (rehearsal begins at 3). Free. The NSO's "Messiah": Dec. 17-20. $15-$89. "Messiah" singalong: Dec. 23 at 8 p.m. Free; tickets required. The Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600.

Water-skiing Santa
Before he packs up his sleigh, Santa will be showing off some unexpected moves on the Potomac River - waterskiing with his friends the Kneeboarding Reindeer, the Flying Elves, the Jet-Skiing Grinch and Frosty the Snowman.

Dec. 24 at 1 p.m. Old Town Alexandria, between King and Oronoco streets. Free.


You've been waiting for this all year, right? Festive cocktails, cookies, latkes and who knows what else. The New Year's resolutions will come later - this is the season for food with friends. But just in case you're trying to be good now, we've included a few food and drink events that don't necessarily require that you consume anything you'll regret later. Cheers! -- Fritz Hahn and Becky Krystal

Gin-GRR-bread Habitat Competition
Every year in conjunction with ZooLights, the National Zoo sponsors a gingerbread competition centered on its animal residents.This year's theme is "It's a Small, Small Mammal World," meaning we'll see edible versions of such critters as meerkats, prairie dogs, golden lion tamarins and that fan favorite, naked mole-rats. Although the registration deadline has passed, you still have several weeks to admire the colorful, edible entries, which are on display at the zoo's visitor center. Just like with the animals, look and don't touch (or eat).

Through Jan. 2 at the National Zoo, 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-633-4888. Free.

DC Brau's Made in D.C. Holiday Marketplace
This annual extravaganza at DC Brau is one of the few times this holiday season when you can search for a unique gift for your best friend while enjoying a pint or two. Vendors sell jewelry, pottery, letterpress art, T-shirts, knitwear, beard oils and leather goods, all made by artists who live and work in the Washington area. Music, brewery tours and food trucks make it easy to make a day out of shopping.

Nov. 28 from 1 to 7 p.m. at DC Brau, 3178 Bladensburg Rd. NE. Free admission.

Give a Can, Get a Can
Pizzeria Paradiso's fifth-annual fundraiser for Martha's Table is spread out over four locations on consecutive Wednesdays, but the general idea is the same: Bring a can of food for the hungry - the Martha's Table Web site has a list of requested items - and you'll receive a free can of beer. And we don't mean just PBR or Miller Lite: Trade your canned green beans or peaches for brews from DC Brau, Ballast Point, Terrapin or Stillwater. The charitable swap meet will be held at Veloce on Dec. 2, then at Pizzeria Paradiso locations in Old Town Alexandria on Dec. 9, Dupont Circle on Dec. 16 and Georgetown on Dec. 23.

Wednesdays in December. Visit for locations.

Cocktail component classes
There are classes that teach novices how to make the perfect martini or share the history of rye cocktails. But a series of classes led by Nicole Hassoun, a distiller at the Joseph A. Magnus Distillery, is designed for the drinker who wants to take his or her home-bartending game to the next level. Over the course of four Wednesdays, Hassoun will give hands-on instruction about creating tinctures, shrubs, bitters and tonics, which the pros use to create memorable drinks. The first three classes cost $45 per two-hour session, or $80 for two people, and include all the supplies to create cocktail ingredients, which will be taken home. The "tonic" class, on Dec. 23, is slightly different: It's free, includes a tasting of tonics and the raw materials to make a tonic at home. (This one is right in Hassoun's wheelhouse: She's the founder of local tonic producer Chronic Tonic.)

Wednesdays, Dec. 2-23, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Joseph A. Magnus and Co., 2052 West Virginia Ave. NE. $40-$45.

Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of the long-lasting oil used in the Holy Temple's menorah in ancient Jerusalem. They're not quite as miraculous, but you'll probably marvel at the all-you-can-eat latkes and doughnuts at Latke-palooza, which takes place on the second night of the eight-day holiday. The latke bar will feature traditional, sweet potato and zucchini varieties. Ten percent of the event's proceeds will go to the Jewish Food Experience, which explores Jewish culture and religion through food.

Dec. 7 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Commissary, 1443 P St. NW. 202-299-0018. $20.

Candelight tea
Sure, we've all heard the lyrics about figgy pudding, also known as Christmas pudding. But what is it, and what does it taste like? You'll get a chance to have both questions answered at one of several teas hosted at Green Spring, a historic 18th-century house. Attendees also will leave with "a festive favor bag."

Dec. 10, 11 and 13 from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at Historic Green Spring, 4603 Green Spring Rd., Alexandria. 703-941-7987.


Admit it: The idea of another Nutcracker or Messiah could push you to the edge, and maybe right over it. This season, break your routine while still spreading good cheer with one of these offbeat offerings. -- Peggy McGlone

Italian Family festival
Learn about Italian culture and holiday traditions at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is presenting a holiday family festival with an Italian accent. Traditional bagpipers and the Flusso Dance Project will perform, and the Italian Fairy will make a special appearance. Sponsored by the Embassy of Italy and the Italian Cultural Institute, the daylong event includes crafts, face-painting and special offerings in the Kogod Courtyard's cafe.

Dec. 5 from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW. 202-633-7970. Free.

Card workshop
Create holiday cards at a workshop at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. Using holiday stamps from all over the world as inspiration, kids and adults can make individual greetings to share with family and friends. An arts and crafts activity suitable for all ages, the workshop will allow families to share their own Hallmark moment.

Dec. 12 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the National Postal Museum, 2 Massachusetts Ave. NE. 202-633-1000. Free.

Rocknoceros Holiday Sing-along
Join local music favorites Coach, Williebob and Boogie Bennie for Rocknoceros Holiday Sing-along, a holiday party perfect for the smallest members of the family. Presented by Tot Rock: Jammin' at the Smithsonian, the 40- to 50-minute concert features the kid-rock band performing a selection of the season's rockin' songs. Best for ages 2 to 6.

Dec. 17-18 at 10:15 and 11:30 a.m. at the Smithsonian's S. Dillon Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Dr. SW. 202-633-8700. $8, $6 for children, $3 for children younger than 2.

Von Trapp concert
Members of the von Trapp family - you know, the curtain-wearing kids immortalized in "The Sound of Music" - team up with Broadway star Stephanie J. Block and the NSO Pops for a holiday concert of traditional carols and new holiday favorites. The Washington Chorus will join in the fun, and there might even be an appearance by that jolly fellow from the North Pole.

Dec. 10 at 7 p.m., Dec. 11 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 12 at 2 and 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. $20-$99.


It's the most wonderful time of the year - for classical music. Every orchestra has a "Messiah," every chorus a holiday concert (bringing in the bulk of the season's revenue), and every a capella ensemble a U.S. tour. And more power to all of them. -- Anne Midgette

The 21st Century Consort
For a holiday program of a different stripe, check out a local ensemble that consistently presents some of the most inventive and entertaining programming in Washington. This year, the 21st Century Consort brings back Jon Deak's "The Passion of Scrooge, or A Christmas Carol," with baritone William Sharp, and, as a counterweight, Paul Schoenfield's "Improvisations on Hassidic

Dec. 5 at 5 p.m. at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, McEvoy Auditorium, Eighth and F streets NW. 202-633-7970. Free.

Around the holidays, one acclaimed international a capella ensemble after another comes to town. Calmus, a quintet based in Leipzig, Germany, is considered by some as the best in Germany; our critic gave it a rave review at its last D.C.-area appearance in 2013. It comes to the Barns at Wolf Trap with a program that, like every other a capella group program, promises a blend of classical and contemporary holiday fare.

Dec. 6 at 7:30 p.m. at the Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Rd., Vienna. 877-965-3872. $35.

A Ceremony of Carols
Forget "Messiah." The quintessential Christmas music is Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols," 11 beautiful carols and interludes for children's choir and harp, which I, like many music lovers, sang as a child. Cathedra, the National Cathedral's in-house ensemble, offers the cycle as part of a holiday concert that also features the Diderot Quartet and Norwegian violinist Bjarte Eike.

Dec. 8 at 7:30 p.m. at the Washington National Cathedral, 3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-537-6200. $20-$65.

The Swingles
Speaking of classics, remember the Swingle Singers? Fifty years later, the group that pioneered adventurous a capella crossover is back as the Swingles. The seven-member ensemble comes to Washington on the U.S. leg of an international tour. Among other things, their arrangements of traditional Christmas carols offer a refreshingly contemporary twist on beloved traditions. [Update: This performance has been canceled.]

Dec. 11 at 7:30 p.m. at National City Christian Church, 5 Thomas Cir. NW. 703-683-6040. $25-$65. 

Hansel and Gretel
Poor Engelbert Humperdinck. The German composer had Wagnerian aspirations but a kid- themed subject. Nonetheless, his operatic setting of the well-known fairy tale is a staple throughout the German-speaking world at the holidays. The Washington National Opera is bringing back its scaled-down, family-friendly and English-language production as this year's holiday opera.

Dec. 12-20 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. $59-$75.

And last but not least . . .
Among the Messiahs and choral concerts, I'll reserve a shout-out for a group that does innovative work but often gets overshadowed by its larger brethren: the Washington Master Chorale, whose holiday concert features a world premiere by Russell Nadel as well as works by Vaughan Williams, Poulenc, Heitzeg and others.

Dec. 20 at 4 p.m. at the Church of the Epiphany, 1317 G St. NW. 202-347-2635. $20-$50.


Are you sick of sugarplums, overdosed on Tchaikovsky or simply looking for something unconventional for a holiday night out? Although classical ballet productions of "The Nutcracker" dominate the dance scene this time of year, they aren't the only way to celebrate the season with movement and music. Think of this as your holiday gift from the cosmos: There are non-"Nutcrackers" and also non-ballet "Nutcrackers" coming to town, too. -- Sarah Kaufman

The Hip-Hop Nutcracker

New York City is the setting for "The Hip Hop Nutcracker," which unspools with headspins, flips and cartwheels, a dozen dancers in high-tops and heels, a DJ and an electric violinist. If you bring a coat to donate, you'll get a $10 voucher for a future Strathmore show; Interfaith Works is collecting coats for adults, children and infants.

Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m. at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. 301-581-5100. $29-$54.

Step Afrika!
This percussive dance company presents a rapping, clapping, stomping "Magical Musical Holiday Step Show," featuring DJ Frosty the Snowman and lots of energetic kids.

Dec. 10-22 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. 202-399-7993. $15-$39.50.

Tap-dance tribute
Savion Glover unleashes his tapping power for a tap-dance tribute to the holidays, featuring lights, music and his famously fast and loud footwork.

Dec. 19 at 8 p.m. at George Mason University's Center for the Arts, Route 123 and Braddock Rd., Fairfax. 703-993-8888. $32-$54.


Nothing against "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens," but for moviegoers seeking a more festive alternative to the latest Hollywood blockbusters, several area theaters are offering an array of holiday-themed programming, from champagne classics to cheeseball guilty pleasures.-- Michael O'Sullivan

AFI Silver

Like a temple for those who revere quality film, AFI Silver offers its annual pageant of seasonal wonders, including everything from that well-roasted chestnut "It's a Wonderful Life" to "Tangerine," a 2015 drama about West Hollywood transgender sex workers, set on Christmas Eve.

Dec. 4-24 at AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. 301-495-6720. $5-$13.

Alamo Drafthouse
For a more boisterous, boozy experience, pick your poison from a menu of nostalgic offerings that include "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" - at which the audience is encouraged to quote along with the best-known lines - and a "Home Alone" pizza party.

Dec. 6-26 at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, 20575 East Hampton Plaza, Ashburn. 571-293-6808. $12.

Landmark's Bethesda Row
If you're old enough to remember the pre-cable days, when "The Wizard of Oz" was a staple of holiday television, you're probably too old to want to sit through Adam Sandler's Hanukkah-themed "Eight Crazy Nights." Bethesda Row is showing both, along with the slightly more Christmas-y "Die Hard" and "Love Actually."

Dec. 9-30 at Landmark's Bethesda Row, 7235 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda. 301-652-7273. $8.50-$11.50.

Library of Congress, Packard Campus
Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this beautiful Art Deco-style theater is a treat for cinephiles. Holiday offerings include "The Lemon Drop Kid"; an anthology of animated Christmas TV shows; and "Miracle on 34th Street."

Dec. 3-19 at Library of Congress, Packard Campus, 19053 Mount Pony Rd., Culpeper, Va. 540-827-1079, Ext. 79994. Free.

RiffTrax Live: 'Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny'
Two wisecracking former stars of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" deliver a barrage of heckling commentary - via streaming video- as you watch a film that "defies logic, reason and several laws of physics," according to its presenters.

Dec. 3 and 15 at 670 theaters nationwide, including several in the Washington area. For a full list, visit $12.50-13.75.

Staff favorites
Prefer to Netflix and chill but have seen "Elf" and "A Christmas Story" 20 times already? We picked the brains of Going Out Guide staffers for recommendations of less-well-known holiday movies available on demand and DVD:

"The Man Who Came to Dinner" (1942). The screen adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's hit Broadway comedy centers on a freeloading visitor over the holidays.

"The Great Escape" (1963). It's not a Christmas movie by a long shot. But this rousing World War II drama has - bizarrely- become a staple of Yuletide viewing in Britain. Go figure.

"The Ref" (1994). Denis Leary plays a burglar who takes a bickering family hostage on Christmas Eve.

"Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway" (2008). The long-running stage musical about struggling artists is set in New York's East Village on Christmas Eve.

"Nativity!" (2009). Martin Freeman ("The Hobbit") plays a music teacher directing an inept school Nativity play in the vein of "School of Rock."

"Arthur Christmas" (2011) James McAvoy voices the role of Father Christmas's dweeby son, Arthur, in this animated charmer.