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december 22
Historic house museums Some people like to sneak off to the beach during the off-season, even though the weather isn't right for swimming and even fishing is a dicey proposition. Those who crave the scent of sea air and salt marsh, however, go and roam the sea wall and The Strand. For the holidays, there are other scents to enjoy. The insides of several of Galveston's historic homes are decorated with pine, magnolia and evergreen. House fires caused by tree-candles were something of a problem in the 19th century (as were house fires caused by plain old lighting candles, gas lamps and wood stoves), but, all in all, the celebrations were simpler, and thanks to the Galveston Historical Foundation, we moderns can stroll through Christmas past at the 1839 Samuel May Williams Home and the 1859 Ashton Villa. The foundation has taken great care in their decorating and almost all of the handiwork is historically accurate. In fact, there's only one cheat. People, according to house museums director George Deeming, "expect to see a large, elaborate Christmas tree." As a concession to contemporary tastes, a huge tree stands in the parlor of Ashton Villa, although Victorians, who took delight in miniatures, favored tiny, table-top trees. Both houses are open for holidays tours daily (excepting Christmas Eve and Christmas Day) through New Year's Eve. Ashton Villa, 2328 Broadway, is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday to Saturday and noon-4 p.m. Sunday; Williams Home, 3601 Bernardo de Galvez (Avenue P), is open noon-4 p.m. daily. For details, call (409) 762-3933. Tickets are $4, $3.50 seniors and students, for Ashton Villa; $3 and $2.50 for the Williams Home.

The Santa Conspiracy Move over Oliver Stone, hang yo' heads in shame Erisiums, and Rosicrucians, y'all just rue the day you ever thought you were paranoid: The Santa Conspiracy has come to town. The Santa Conspiracy is Blake Newman's original, "wacky," all-Houston holiday show. What plot is behind Newman's plot? Does it turn out Arlo Guthrie was right: "Santa wears a red suit, he's a communist" and is no doubt bent on polluting our precious bodily fluids? Nope; Newman's show is set in the Galleria, so it's decidedly capitalistic, and ultra-Houston. And, nope, it's not about why Big Bad Bob hired a Chicago pro to play Santa in all our city-sanctioned celebrations. Instead, it's about an even better disaster! This fantasy has desperate holiday shoppers -- who seem to be missing their shoes; even Santa is bootless -- running afoul of the law. Something terribly, terribly odd is afoot. Through December 30. No show Christmas Eve. Special shows Sunday, December 25, at 5 and 8 p.m. Regular shows Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m. Curtains, 3722 Washington Avenue, 862-4548. $10, $8 students.

december 23
The best lights tour ever There are a slew of well-known, widely advertised holiday lighting displays and no one of them is particularly better than the other -- in fact, they all share a packaged sameness. Those who want to see the real deal, who want to get the whole spirit of Christmas thing going, have two choices: the first and most obvious is to simply walk around the block and see the neighbors' lights and decorations. This option, though, isn't always available -- apartment dwellers and people whose neighbors don't bother to decorate, for instance, must travel if they must see Christmas lights -- and that leads to choice number two: drive over to the tiny borough of Idylwood and the surrounding East End area for the bestest light trip around. Here, even the tiniest garage apartments are decked with lights and the Ninja Turtles still reign as proud cutouts waving from well-tended lawns. The lovely street of Fairfield is home to the East End's Tara. The white and columned showplace is tastefully draped with white lights and green boughs and has a homemade diorama on the front lawn. Santa, still in his red suit but sans boots, is stretched out on a chiropractor's table being adjusted. St. Nick and the chiropractor have cheery holiday smiles painted on their bright faces. Those bright faces are in the glow of a powerful floodlight, said fixture also illuminating a plywood copy of the back doctor's card. This is something -- but what? Yet another sign that the holidays are thoroughly corrupt and used to further petty human goals? Or a heartwarming sign that, in our town at least, people can still be proud iconoclasts?

We leave it to you to decide. We however, are completely charmed by the single best Santa's sleigh in Houston. This display, another do-it-yourself life-size cutout, sits before one modest home on a quiet residential street. The Santa is a jolly, cartoonish sort, and his sleigh is generously loaded with carefully painted packages. His reindeer, too, have animated joy on their smiling faces. One reindeer -- not Rudolph -- is the star of this yard and makes the display stand out. The reindeer is depicted as scratching his ear, as deer will, with his hind hoof. Making a cutout of this size, even working with the best Sears skillsaw, is no easy task. The sight of this one, amazingly lifelike reindeer is a tribute to the human spirit and evokes inner-gooey stuff more deftly and less annoyingly than A Christmas on Walton's Mountain. Where is it? Somewhere vaguely east of the blue lights on Dismuke. To view all this, and so much more, take the Gulf Freeway to Wayside, exit, go under the freeway, and then meander. Free.

december 24
It's Christmas Eve Do you know where your children are? And have you got gifts for them? In many ways, this is the worst day of the year for Christmas celebrating people, of which there are two types: those who are about to go stark, staring mad because they still haven't finished their shopping and those who are about to go stark, staring mad because the kids have been home all day for too many days in a row. Oh, what to do, what to do? Here's a nifty idea that will save the day for both types of Christmas celebrating people and literacy groups in eight states -- take the kids to Half Price Books. Half Price Books stores are chock full of books, and books are the perfect gift. (Little known and very helpful holiday rule: if you buy a person a book as a gift, you do not have to give them another gift until they finish that book. No fair buying stupid, self-serving or outside-the-recipient's-area-of-interest books.) While you finish shopping, kids can draw on READ Commission bookmarks. Between now and the first day of the new year, every time a kid draws a picture on a bookmark, one book is earned for the READ Commission. Bookmarks are displayed in the stores and the books earned go to reading and literacy projects. But wait, there's more! Another thing you can do at Half Price Books is buy children's books. Reading is a very quiet activity, at least until the MST3000 marathon comes on and everyone starts singing the Gamera song. There are five Half Price Books in the greater Houston area, and they'll be open until at least 6 p.m. today.

december 25
It's Christmas Christians, or at least mallbillies who grew up under vaguely Xian auspices, spend the day opening gifts and eating and watching ball games. But what about those who, for whatever reason, don't celebrate Christmas? Do not go to the movies! You might think this would be the one day you would not have to stand in line -- but you'd be wrong. After a long (and more and more, a sober) day with the family, people who do celebrate are all Christmased out and going buggy. They flee their homes and head for the local multiplex.

But laundromats, the ones that stay open, are completely deserted, and, you know, if you're the laundry type, you can have a wonderful afternoon with the clean, wholesome smell of washing powder, the soothing rhythm of spin cycles and a good book. Go for it! The double-loaders are all yours!

Shannon Brothers' Sixth Annual Christmas Show Alas, no "Flabio" this year. Charlie Shannon, who created the one and only true Flabio, has short hair now. He cut it off to make his mom happy. The Shannon boys are like that, good wholesome family types. Charlie knows that many in Space City will spend the day, the whole day, with family, and he has a Christmas evening message: "Now that you've opened the presents, kissed the relatives and eaten the dinner, get the hell out and come see the Shannon brothers' Christmas show." The main brothers are Charlie and T. Sean. T. Sean is a big New York City comic now and has written for TV. He has an imagination that Americans like, possibly because he watches just as much TV as they do. T. Sean, a veteran of talk-show watching, answers the question "if only" thusly: "If only I was an 11-year-old girl who lived in a trailer park in Oklahoma, then I would put on makeup and go to the Skate Ranch and say I was 14." The uncomedic brother, Pat (he's not the Shannon brother who's a cop), may also appear.

This friends-and-family show also features Jack Mize, the shaved, gleaming, cue-ball head of comedy, along with the usual suspects and possibly slides of Charlie Shannon's underwear. Special skits include "Santa's Answering Machine" and the Houston Wrestling version of Christmas, "The Santinator v. the Grinch," with a special surprise masked-something played by Riley Barber. Shannon Brothers' snow shakers may be sold after the show. 8 p.m. The Laff Stop, 1952 West Gray, 524-2333. $5.

december 26
Into the Deep This is no ordinary, run-of-the-mill IMAX movie, no indeed -- this is an IMAX 3D underwater film. The 35-minute adventure is narrated by actress Kate Nelligan. In the cool blue sea, with no soundtrack save the sound of sea birds and surf, Nelligan explains the quirky habits of the garibaldi fish, the grazing of a sheep crab, the battles of sarcastic fringeheads and the sexual mores of opalescent squid. (They do it by the light of the spring moon.) Today is the Southwest premiere. Into the Deep shows at 11 a.m., noon, 2 and 4 p.m. (with late shows at 8 and 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.) Moody Gardens, take I-45 to Galveston, exit 61st Street, turn right on Seawall Boulevard, then right on 81st Street and left on Hope Boulevard. (800) 582-4773, ext. 209. $6.

december 27
Yuletide at Bayou Bend The mansion was lavishly (everything is lavish at Bayou Bend) decorated for the season, and the boughs and ribbons are left up even after the holiday so that those who had no time to see the spectacle before Christmas can come by to peep and coo. Docents explain all the arcana of early American Christmases, and remind you not to step on the Oriental carpets. 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Through December 30. Bayou Bend, 1 Westcott Street, off Memorial, 639-7750. $10, $8.50 seniors and students, $5 ages 10-18. 639-7750.

december 28
They want to suck your blood Hey! How 'bout those holiday traffic death tolls? Sure, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and dozens of clever public service announcements have educated the public to the point that not every yahoo with a Buick gets ripped and hits the highway. However, there are still a lot of mangled people oozing in emergency rooms all over the state and they need blood. So do citizens who haven't been in car wrecks. The Blood Center must collect 550 units of blood every single day to meet the needs of the Gulf Coast region, a 17-county area.

The Holiday Heroes Blood Drive is looking for people over 17 who weigh more than 110 pounds and are healthy and have never had an internal cancer. Donors donate a pint or so -- easily spared -- and in return get cookies and juice, a T-shirt and that feeling the Grinch got when his heart grew and he did right by the Whos. Today the vampires are at Greenspoint Mall, Sharpstown Mall and Willowbrook Mall from 10 a.m.-9 p.m. For more information, call 790-1200.


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