Holiday Sampler Tour Thursday is always a free day at the Museum of Fine Arts, and this evening there's a special tour to boot. Education director Beth B. Schneider will escort economically minded art fans around. Her talk and tour will cover the highlights of the permanent collection and, for fun, two exhibitions with contrasting subject matter, history and style. "Visions of Love and Life: Pre-Raphaelite Art from the Birmingham Collection" is classy, Art Appreciation 101 stuff from an esteemed Old World collection. The other highlight of the tour, "The Texas Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston: Texas Myths and Realities," is a collection of works by Texas artists with a distinct regional attitude. The Texas collection has an international reputation, although not the sort of reputation enjoyed by the Birmingham Collection. The unique merits of each group of works and their disparate reputations might be discussed on Schneider's tour. The museum urges tour guests to come early, noting that the cafe opens at 5:30 p.m. and that there's a behind-the-scenes presentation at 6:30 p.m. We suggest arriving early for an unguided tour of more Southwestern art, "Voices from the American West." 7 p.m. Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, 639-7300. Free.
Environmental illustrations In these times, San Francisco-based artist Dugald Stermer might find himself branded a pornographer -- after all, he's the artist responsible for the art in Birds & Bees: A Sexual Study. And this book on animal mating habits, with Stermer's award-winning illustrations and the word sex right in the title, is available to American schoolchildren. However, Stermer seems to feel that people (so long as they're not on talk shows) are enlightened creatures and interested in learning. Along with drawing birds and bees, Stermer is an expert at rendering rain forest creatures such as the poison frog and the scarlet ibis. He's also just completed a book, Vanishing Flora, of delicate drawings of endangered plants. Today and Saturday, he's at Moody Gardens, autographing special rain forest posters ($15) and copies of Vanishing Flora ($39.95). Stermer autographs, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.; the park is open, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. 1 Hope Boulevard, Galveston, (800) 582-4673. $6.
Rotten Ralph America has a long list of beloved fictional cats -- Krazy, Felix, Sylvester, Tom, Top Cat, the orange tom of It's Like This, Cat, Morris, Garfield (yuck!), the whole Broadway pride, the longhaired cat of The Cat and the Curmudgeon, Data's cat Spot, Snowball II, Scratchy, Bill and, finally, gloriously, Rotten Ralph. Mrrrowrrr! A costumed character representing the irascible hero of Jack Gantos' books will host an "Almost New Year's" party for children, passing out cookies and hugs, and leading a "rotten, howling cat chorus of 'Auld Lang Syne.' " Children who don't know the words to "Auld Lang Syne" need not worry; few people know the words, and, anyway, the kids are only expected to howl along with Rotten Ralph. Children are encouraged to wear bells and bring noisemakers. 6:30 p.m. Barnes & Noble Vanderbilt Square, 3003 West Holcombe Boulevard, 349-0050. Free.
Kwaanza at Nia The holiday for African-Americans will be celebrated in various places around town through January 1, and one of today's get-togethers is at Nia Gallery and Bookstore. Kwanzaa gets some flack for being a made-up holiday (as if all holidays weren't made up at some point in time) and because some people think it's supposed to replace Christmas (or Hanukkah or Divali). But the celebration is pretty well established now. Many newspaper articles on the subject contain either a collection of recipes or dark warnings that Kwanzaa is becoming "too commercial," proving that as far as Sunday supplements are concerned, Kwanzaa is just another holiday. As with most popular holidays, the main focus of Kwanzaa is sitting down with family and friends and enjoying good food, such as sweet potato fritters, lemony-green curried chicken and black-eyed peas. The Nia Gallery and Bookshop celebration is at 7 p.m., 7725 West Bellfort. Celebrations also at 7 p.m., Saint Gregory the Great Church, 10500 Nold, and Mount Ararat Baptist Church, 5801 West Montgomery (the Mount Ararat event will have an African market, opening at 6 p.m.). For information on these and other Kwanzaa celebrations, call 521-0629. Free.
The Nutty Nutcracker The hard-working dancers of the Houston Ballet have performed The Nutcracker 39 times this year. Dancing The Nutcracker that often can do things to a person, bad things. To clear their heads and prepare for 1996, the company ends this year's run of the Christmas warhorse with The "Nutty" Nutcracker. Special costuming, they say, is part of the zany package. Ballet insiders also say (not that we believe them) that this crazy show is such a hoot that dead celebrities such as Elvis and Marilyn will rise from their graves to join in. More than 500,000 Houstonians have seen the Houston Ballet production of The Nutcracker, which has giant rats and a flying sleigh; be one of the few to see The "Nutty" Nutcracker, which has who knows what. What would E.T.A. Hoffman think? Tchaikovsky? The dancers just don't care. They may be willing to endure endless hours of training and rehearsal, and be willing to uphold the discipline of their art, but after a month of Nutcracker performances, something's got to give. 7:30 p.m. Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas Avenue, 227-ARTS. $10-$60.