Saturday, December 09, 2006

Feeling full of holiday cheer? Many things to do around here (Houston area)

No snow? No problem.

Houstonians may lack a white Christmas (typically), but we've got plenty of other seasonal markers that make this time of year uniquely festive. Last month, we asked readers to share the local places and events that define their holiday traditions.

Here are some popular ways get in the spirit.

Mood music

Christmas tunes, as heard in every shop you enter, can feel excessive and commercialized. But the live music that fills the historical JPMorgan Chase Bank does wonders getting you in the mood.

The JPMorgan Chase Holiday Choir performs free concerts in the downtown bank lobby (712 Main) weekdays at noon through Dec. 22. The choir started when employees surprised Jesse H. Jones with a performance in 1946. Jones, then chairman of the National Bank of Commerce, requested a repeat the next year.

"It's one of the few traditions in a city that's so new," one that's endured multiple mergers, says Mike Ballases, chairman of the Houston region. "It's not a Chase thing; it's a Houston thing."

"When I was a little girl, my mom and aunt started going," recalls reader Melody Sebastian, who was just 5 or 6 years old at the time. Her group has grown larger, now that the 42-year-old accounting clerk is married with four children and has a grandchild on the way. Sebastian loves the Hallelujah Chorus, which ends each performance.

Costume party

A trip to Galveston may be your first instinct during the summer, but the beach town draws a healthy crowd the first weekend of December, too. Dickens on the Strand, its annual Victorian-themed tribute to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, began in 1974 as the Old English Christmas and Hanukkah Party and evolved into a weekend-long celebration in 1983.

It's a quirky mix of costumed revelers in voluminous dresses, top hats and peasant rags, and food vendors.

"I love the roasted chestnuts," says reader Kaye Hardy, who dresses up for the occasion.

She and her husband, John, have visited every few years for the last 15. When the couple's two adult daughters were younger, they came in costume, too.


Historical highlights

Just because the kids will be off from school doesn't mean they can't learn a thing or two. This year's Bayou Bend Yuletide, themed "The Wonderful World of Children," looks at Christmas through the eyes of little ones.

Education director Kathleen O'Connor and an army of volunteer docents have recreated historical scenes from the 17th to 20th centuries in the former estate of Houston philanthropist Miss Ima Hogg. Each of the eight decorated rooms is a vignette of early American life. Hardy's favorite is the depiction of a 1950s Christmas morning in the Drawing Room.

The event runs through Dec. 31. Tickets are $5-$10, or visit 1-5 p.m. Dec. 17 for free. Information:

Dressy homes

There's nothing like history with a side of hot chocolate. Readers also mentioned the Heritage Society's annual Candlelight Tour from 6:30-9:30 p.m. tonight at Sam Houston Park downtown. It features eight historic houses decorated to suit the different periods in which they were built.

Seven of the homes are dressed up inside and out and staffed with docents. Pathways are lit with candles, and carolers, storytellers and crafters keep you entertained. Bring along a camera to snatch a photo with Santa.

Tour tickets are $5-$10. Information:

Bright lights

The Galleria area isn't the only place with cool lights. Readers mentioned several spots around town, with Hermann Park's annual Holiday Lights standing out as a favorite.

The free event, organized by the Hermann Park Conservancy, includes lighted pedal boats for rent, live performances and food vendors.

The lights will be on 6-9 p.m. Dec. 15-17, 22-24 and 26-30. Information:

For festive neighborhoods to cruise, reader Pamela Jarmon-Wade suggests the Shepherd Park Terrace subdivision northwest of downtown. Laura Mendenhall votes for the Quail Valley subdivision in Missouri City.

Only in Houston

Reader Penelope Loughhead considers Lights in the Heights a "funky/unusual" celebration perfectly suited to the neighborhood.

"We started going and just loved it," says Loughhead, who lives near Rice University. "It's just blown us away at how it's grown over the years."

Held tonight, the free blocks-wide party features live music on porches and in yards, jolly open houses and an inviting, pedestrian-friendly feel.


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