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.
Lights in the Heights Unlike that humongous, commerce-driven lighting ceremony over by the Galleria, Lights in the Heights is a sweet little neighborhood thing. No stores, no mobs, no champagne-serving bars and restaurants offering a great plate-glass view. The Heights homes have been done up fancy for the holidays, and the folks who've worked so hard stringing lights and decorating their abodes want to show off their handiwork. As the Christmas lights start twinkling in the dusk, neighbors will tote out the clarinets and violins they don't have much time for during the year and play their own homely versions of "Jingle Bells" and "Silent Night." On the Norhill Esplanade, find local groups of dancers and cloggers and choirs. And at 7 p.m., Santa arrives. Eat cookies and drink wassail, and feel that small-town Christmas cheer right here in the big old fourth-largest city in the nation. 6-9 p.m., on Bayland and Omar streets between Norhill and Beauchamp, 683-5188. $5, for picture taken with Santa; seeing the lights and strolling the streets is absolutely free.
1997 Enron Jingle Bell Run Runners, walkers, skaters and even those who like to stand around and point and giggle are all welcome to this sporting event that benefits the Downtown YMCA community service programs. There is, of course, the run/walk event, but as soon as the first participants cross the finish line, the real fun starts. There will be games and music, and Santa will even be on hand. Get there early and procure a set of those must-have foam antlers. And if you're really cheerful and energetic, enter the best-holiday-costume contest: You could score a pair of round-trip tickets from Continental Airlines. 2 p.m., 1-mile kids' run; 2:25 p.m., 5-mile wheelchair and 3.2-mile in-line skate event; 2:30 p.m., 5-mile adult run and 3.2-mile family walk. Downtown YMCA, 1600 Louisiana. Call 758-9297 for information, or steer your browser to www.jinglebellrun.com. $20; $10, kids 13 and under.
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Julie Garwood and Toys for Tots Julie Garwood, best-selling author of the Clayborne Brides series, has been at it again -- for better or worse. "Sweet" and "feel-good" and "laugh out loud" are the kind of kudos her romance novels garner. If that sounds promising to you, you can have her sign your copy of her latest effort, Come the Spring. She asks her fans to act in the feel-good spirit of her prose by donating a new toy to the Marines' Toys for Tots program. 1-2 p.m., Katy Budget Books, 2347 Fry Road, (281) 578-7770. Admission: a new, unwrapped toy or book for a child.
The Drawing Speaks: Theophile Bra, Works 18261855 In 19th-century France, Theophile Bra was known as a sculptor of civic and religious monuments. But in 1826, Bra suffered the deaths of two wives in rapid succession, and underwent repeated struggles with mental illness. The tragedies in his life coincided with a less-known turn in his art. Come see these previously unexhibited drawings -- visionary pieces that explored his dreams and mystical feelings, much as the Surrealists and Abstract Expressionists did nearly a century later. Through March 29, 50 of the works are exhibited for the first time. The Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 525-9400. The museum is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., seven days a week. Free.
A Tuna Christmas Since we've had a gajillion people calling up and wondering when Tuna Christmas is coming back to Houston, we're happy to announce: Here it is. Starring Tony Award-nominated Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, this very funny, very irreverent play takes you to Tuna, Texas, a town rooted in conservatism. Here, the Lions Club is considered too liberal; it's a place where every pickup boasts a gun rack and big hair reigns. Besides the wildly wacky original characters (including Bertha Bumiller and cat-eyed Vera Carp), you'll meet new inhabitants of Tuna: two Tasty Kreme waitresses who shoot from the lip and dress to kill; a hypoglycemic theater director whose past triumphs include an all-white Raisin in the Sun; and the iron-haired, penny-pinching city secretary Dixie Deberry. It's satire of the merriest sort. Opens tonight at 8 p.m. (see Thrills for other dates and times). Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas, 629-3700. $25-$35.
Museum of Printing History What do the Catholic Bible, Santa Claus and Christmas cards have in common? Besides their obvious relationship to Christmas, they're all subjects of new exhibits at the Museum of Printing History. The lowdown: (1) Thomas Nast, a 19th-century caricaturist, is known for creating the modern-day Santa Claus. In "The Evolution of Santa Claus," see how the jolly old elf got started and what's happened to him since. (2) "Christmas Cards of Years Past" reveals, among other things, that the first Christmas cards go back to chromolithographer Louis Prang in 1873; by 1881 they were such a hit, he was printing more than five million per year. So now you know who to thank for that achy card-writing hand. (3) And finally, "The Challenge of the Catholic Bible" shows that from the 16th until the early-19th century, Catholics had a hard go of it, what with censorship laws and folks like Calvin trying to tell them how to worship. Those struggles are reflected in the various manifestations of the Catholic Bible, many of which are on display. Think of these shows as a contemplative respite from the maddening mall crowd. The Museum of Printing History, 1324 W. Clay, 522-4652. $2.