Sometimes Grandma’s “very special” fruitcake just isn’t enough. If your holidays are marked by a little too much tradition, consider these festive suggestions from the festive elves on the Variety staff. Some will force you to get out and brace the brutal cold. Others are tailor-made to savor while hanging tinsel on the tree. All are guaranteed to help make this your best season ever.
Duke Ellington/ Billy Strayhorn’s ‘The Nutcracker Suite’
Try playing this jazzy take on the Tchaikovsky classic for family holiday gatherings. The original 1960 recording is so hip, so infectious, even the most cynical grown-ups will start tapping their toes. As for the kids, they’ll stop and smile, recognizing favorite threads from the ballet score.
(Available for streaming on Spotify.)
‘The Shop Around the Corner’
Jimmy Stewart’s other holiday classic may not be as well known, but it’s just as touching, especially for those looking for an excuse to gather beneath the mistletoe. He’s a top salesman at a Budapest leather-goods store trying to seal the deal with a co-worker (Margaret Sullavan) who’s unaware that they’re secret pen pals.
(5 a.m. Dec. 16 and 11:30 a.m. Dec. 24, TCM.)
‘Listen to Your Mother Holiday Alumni Show’
The annual Mother’s Day event moves to December with new, holiday-themed stories by 14 women who wowed you in previous shows. Prinna Bourdeau, Avivah Brown, Hawona Sullivan Janzen and others will tell mom-related stories that are funny, poignant, aggravating and beautiful.
(7 p.m. Dec. 5, Riverview Theatre, 3800 42nd Av. S., Mpls.; $20-$25, eventbrite.com.)
‘The Longest Night’
Accompanied by pianist Sonja Thompson, creator and performer Bradley Greenwald blends a dizzying array of source material — Margaret Atwood, Rodgers and Hart, Leonard Cohen — into a show that celebrates “winter’s beauty, the holiday blues and the soul’s need for rebirth.”
(Dec 12-23, Open Eye Figure Theatre, 506 E. 24th St., Mpls., $22-$26, openeyetheatre.org.)
Free ice skating at Holidazzle
You’re gliding across the ice — pompom hat blowing in the wind, “Jingle Bell Rock” blasting from the sound system — when suddenly you slip and land flat on your backside. No problem! People are crashing all over the place at Holidazzle in Loring Park.
(Thu.-Sun. through Dec. 23 but skating available daily until the ice melts. mplsdown town.com/winterskate.)
The Mavericks, ‘Hey! Merry Christmas!’
They’ve been making old-school country music sound fresh for three decades, so no wonder the holy-voiced Raul Malo and his ace band livened up the tired Christmas music market with our favorite among the 2018 holiday LPs. Ample accordion and horns add jingle, bells and whistles to playful originals like “Santa Does,” and of course Malo blows the chimney off the roof in a full-tilt take on “Baby (Please Come Home).”
‘Star of Wonder’
Sure, you’d like to hear Christmas music, but it’s hard finding a babysitter. Take the kids to this Saturday morning concert of popular holiday carols by VocalEssence that’s designed for families with babies and toddlers. Singalongs and playing with toys are encouraged. Hands-on craft activities are also available. Bonus: Bring up to four children for free with each adult ticket. (9:30 & 11 a.m. Dec. 8, Minneapolis Institute of Art. $15; 612-371-5656, vocalessence.org.)
‘Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch’
The classic story has been remade on a regular basis, sometimes to better results (the 1992 animated version narrated by Walter Matthau) than others (Jim Carrey’s 2000 live-action take). This year’s film, playing theaters throughout the Twin Cities, comes down on the plus side. The marvelous animation is from the folks who made “Despicable Me,” with the Grinch’s voice provided by none other than Sherlock Holmes himself, Benedict Cumberbatch, who does a terrific job of hiding his British accent.
Trailer Trash’s Trashy Little Xmas
These Twin Cities honky-tonkers are taking their Yule hoedown all over the state this year. Nate Dungan and the boys do some traditional tunes their way and deliver a few delightful seasonal originals. The holiday season isn’t complete until you get to shake the“Jingle Stick.” (Dec. 7, Grand Event Center, Northfield; Dec. 8 and 22, Lee’s Liquor Lounge, Mpls.; Dec. 14, Wilebski’s Blues Saloon, St. Paul; Dec. 15, Eagles Club, Rochester; Dec. 21, Turf Club, St. Paul. $20-$25, trailertrashmusic.com.)
‘Angels We Have Heard Are High’
A marijuana dessert is just one of the ways that folks take the edge off the holidays in the Brave New Workshop’s sketch-comedy sendup of the season. The witty jokes themselves — by performers Lauren Anderson, Taj Ruler, Denzel Belin and Doug Neithercott — offer relief from seasonal stress. (Thursdays-Sundays through Jan. 26, 824 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls. $35-$39; 612-332-6620, bravenewworkshop.com.)
New Standards holiday concert
What stylish suits will Chan Poling, John Munson and Steve Roehm wear? Who will their never-advertised special guests be? Of course Rupert, the devilish dancer, will be there. And “Snow Days” and “Christmas Time Next Year,” the original holiday tunes associated with this jazzy Twin Cities trio. But half the fun is the element of surprise at this extravaganza, now in its 12th year. (8 p.m. Fri. and 2 & 8 p.m. Sat., State Theatre, Mpls. $25-$110; 1-800-982-2787, hennepintheatretrust.org.)
Holidays at the Hill House
Maybe it’s been a tough year, and your decorations are still boxed up in the basement. So get a vicarious taste of holiday excess by touring the brownstone mansion of railroad empire builder James J. Hill, decked out in finery for the season. You can get an hourlong guided tour from actors posing as servants, or just chart your own path through the 36,000-square-foot house, dubbed “Minnesota’s Downton Abbey,” perched on the bluffs above downtown St. Paul. (240 Summit Av. $8-$12 for tours, $6-$10 for self-guided, free for ages 4 and under; 651-297-2555, mnhs.org/hillhouse.)
Kinda Kinky Holiday Koncert
Odd that one of the Grinchiest frontmen in the Rock Hall of Fame inspired one of the season’s warmest singalongs. But the song bag of the Kinks’ Ray Davies is deep and full of surprises, and with vocal help from a parade of more than 30 Twin Cities scenemakers, the tribute band Kinda Kinky offers a beat-fueled sleigh ride that ends with Davies’ “Father Christmas” and its refrain that even Scrooge might think twice about uttering: “Father Christmas, give us some money, we’ll beat you up if you make us annoyed.” (7 p.m. Dec. 14, Minneapolis Eagles #34, 2507 E. 25th St. $10 or $5 with nonperishable food item.)
Various artists, ‘Christmas in Soulsville’
As unsung a classic among Christmas albums as Little Johnny Taylor is among Stax recording artists, this compilation bundled together the Stax label’s best holiday singles from the ’60s and ’70s, but is as timeless as they come, starting with Otis Redding’s “Merry Christmas, Baby” and including a trove of originals and traditionals by Taylor, Booker T & the MGs, Isaac Hayes, Albert King and the Staple Singers.
‘It’s a Wonderful Life’
If you remember this perennial as a saccharine feel-good story, you might want to reconsider the Jimmy Stewart/Frank Capra masterpiece. It gets hopeful only at the end, after 90 minutes of unremitting gloom that leads right up to a suicide attempt and this attempt to prevent it: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole.” (8:30 p.m. Dec. 20-23, Riverview Theater, 3800 42nd Av. S., Mpls. $2 or $1 with nonperishable food item.)
Run Westy Run’s Christmas Day Reunion
It’s not really a holiday show, but this fifth annual 7th Street Entry gig is stuffed with celebratory and familial vibes. Brothers Kirk and Kraig Johnson, who flirted with indie-rock fame with the Westies in the late ’80s and ’90s, come together again each year and now use the gig to pay tribute to their late brother/bandmate Kyle, raising a whole lot of other spirits, too. (8 p.m. Dec. 25th, 7th Street Entry, 701 1st Av. N., Mpls. $20, first-avenue.com.)