The History of Playing Cards These days, we can get a set at Eckerd for a couple of bucks, but the first decks of colored lithographed playing cards were so costly to produce that they sent one company into bankruptcy. A set of these cards -- along with fortune-telling cards from the 15th through 18th centuries and a 1679 "Horrid Popish Plot" deck -- will be among the 239 displays. 7 p.m., opening reception. (Show runs through Jan. 15.) The Museum of Printing History, 1324 W. Clay, 522-4652. $10.
The Butterflies of Texas Butterflies hardly seem appropriate to the season, but a lot of these lovely, lacy insects spend their winters in Texas, where it's warm and hospitable to bugs of all sorts. John Tveten and his wife, Gloria, are nature columnists for a paper we won't, ahem, mention here, and they've written books on the state's birds, wildflowers and (of course) butterflies. Tonight, John addresses the Outdoor Nature Club, describing what's floating so tenderly through our skies. 7:30 p.m. Houston Arboretum and Nature Center, 4501 Woodway. For information, call Carl Aiken at 665-4693. Free.
The Christmas Revels Instead of going to another Christmas celebration, try enjoying the winter solstice. This Celtic holiday is revived by Revels Houston, whose annual Christmas Revels show includes poetry, songs, dances and Celtic myths. Musicians hailing from the British Isles have traveled across the dark seas to bring us their traditional sounds and rituals: Seamus Connolly is an "All Ireland" award-winning fiddler; cine Minogue, an Irish harpist; and Paddy Keenan, a third-generation Uilleann pipe player. See Highland sword-dancing and Irish step-dancing; hear the heartfelt wail of bagpipes and the traditional Welsh New Year wassailing story. 7:30 p.m. (see Thrills for other times and dates). University of Houston, Moores School of Music, entrance no. 16 off Cullen, 668-3303. $20; $15, seniors; $10, kids under 12.
There's No Business Like Snow Business The Texas Tap Ensemble likes punning, obviously, but they like tapping, too. And they've been working on a tap version of The Nutcracker. Instead of being transported to the land of sweet, Clara gets sent to the Land of Jive, where she discovers that swing is king. Dancers tap to everything from Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" to Mannheim Steamroller. 8 p.m., Dec. 12; 2 and 8 p.m., Dec. 13. Houston Community College, Heinen Theater, corner of Austin and Holman in downtown Houston, 686-9184. $7.
Amy Grant If you absolutely have to have a pop-music Christmas fix this year, who better to take you down the path of soul-numbing Christmas cheer than the queen of soulless music herself? Yes, Amy Grant is here tonight, singing with the Nashville Symphony. Hear all your favorite holiday songs rendered so insipidly cheerful that your holiday-hardened heart will throb with joy. 8 p.m., Compaq Center, 10 Riverway Plaza, 629-3700. $25-$75.
Rudolph, Frosty & Friends "Frosty the Snowman," "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Silent Night" are all songs your kiddos know by heart, and all are included on the program today from the Houston Symphony and the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts student chorus. Hear songs from The Nutcracker and the wondrous Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah. Get your little singers to join the audience sing-along, and watch them glow with sweet enjoyment of their own tender voices. 9:30 a.m., preconcert activities; 10:30 a.m. and 12:15 p.m., concert; Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, 227-ARTS. $14 and $10; $8 and $5, kids.
Los Del Sur You think you know world music? Today, hear some unusual instruments both huge and teensy when Los Del Sur brings the music of South America to Houston. Hear tunes from places as exotic as Ecuador, Paraguay and Bolivia. And if you haven't donated a toy anywhere else yet, today is your chance to do so -- and to get a little something in return for your shopping trouble. Admission is one new toy per adult -- and those toys will allow Casa Juan Diego to provide Christmas presents for kids who need them. 7:30 p.m., University of Houston, Melcher Hall Auditorium, entrance no. 19 off Calhoun. Call 528-1492 for information.
Holiday Blues Ball Around Christmastime, most every adult American who's not on Prozac (aren't there a few of us left?) gets a little blue. So why not wipe that fake grin off your face and wallow in the absolute misery the holidays inspire? The Houston Blues Society invites you to hear the soulful tunes of Texas Johnny Brown and The Quality Blues Band at the Holiday Blues Ball. When you can't cry no more, wander back to the media room and watch a special screening of Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins. All proceeds go to a community outreach program that will bring blues music and local musicians to kids' schools. 8 p.m.-2 a.m., Yesterday's, 9120 Winkler. 880-8888. $10.
Brave Combo They first surfaced in Denton, way long ago in the druggy '70s. Back then, they were a nuclear polka band swimming against rock's new wave; ever since, they've continued shattering stylistic barriers. Their specialty is a weird twist of good-ol'-American and across-the-seas-exotic dance rhythms, making what Billboard calls "worldwide unclassifiable music." Just try to imagine what Latin and Japanese pop might sound like if they were "interpreted through the high-energy filter of rock dynamics" (according to Rolling Stone) and you'll start to get a handle on just what this "party band with a purpose" is up to. 11 p.m., Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Ave., 869-2665. $9.