If your taste in holiday decor runs to rare Christian-themed works of art rather than gaudy tinsel and lights, then Rienzi is the place for you this time of year. The grand River Oaks manor, billed as the former home of one of "Houston's finest families" (whatever that means), now serves as the center for European decorative arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Carroll Sterling Masterson and her husband, Harris Masterson III, donated their massive mansion to the MFAH in 1999, along with a spectacular collection of art objects. Rienzi has been elegantly adorned for the holidays. In addition to a tree filled with the Mastersons' own ornaments, a unique and lovely 17th-century painting of the nativity is on display. Executed on obsidian, a lustrous black volcanic glass, The Nativity is by Spanish artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. The particular piece of obsidian was probably originally cut and hand-smoothed by Aztec craftsmen for use as a "smoking mirror," a tool for spiritual communication and divination.
Murillo used the pre-Columbian artifact as a painting surface, allowing the subtle white vertical inclusions in the glass to shine through as heavenly rays. Chunky putti float overhead as Mary and Joseph gaze lovingly down on the Christ child. Baby Jesus is painted as a delightfully chubby pink infant lying on crumpled linen in a manger. In the background, farm-animal spectators loom as barely discernable, shadowed figures, surrounded by the black sheen of the dark obsidian sky. One-hour, docent-led tours every half-hour: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday, December 26 and 27, and Monday, December 29. Self-guided tours: 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, December 27. Holiday decorations on view through Friday, January 2. 1406 Kirby Drive. For information and reservations, call 713-639-7800. $6; $4 for MFAH members. -- Kelly Klaasmeyer
For the Birds
Tired of counting sheep to help put yourself to sleep? Wake up early and count some birds at the Spring Creek Christmas Bird Count. Four teams will split up in the woods to search for woodpeckers, nuthatches, bald eagles and sparrows. Once the results are tabulated, the numbers will be reported to the National Audubon Society. After several hours of traipsing through the underbrush with your eyes peeled for the elusive Henslow's sparrow (and swapping stories about the one that got away at El Palenque Mexican Cantina during the afterparty), you should have no trouble catching some z's later that evening. 7:30 a.m. Saturday, December 27. Jones State Forest, 20634 Kenswick in Humble. To register, call 281-353-9170. $5 donation. -- Keith Plocek
Box It Up
For modern-era Britons and Canadians, the December 26 Boxing Day is just a chance to recover from the overindulgences of Christmas. Historians quibble over Boxing Day's origins. Some say it's the day the rich gave boxed-up presents to servants, or the day the clergy opened alms boxes to help the poor. Two things are certain: It is the Feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and also an annual event at McGonigel's Mucky Duck featuring a full mass conducted by Father Sean Horrigan. The spirit of Boxing Day lives on at the Duck; participants are asked to bring donations of nonperishable food items, clothing or blankets for the needy. After mass, you can belly up to the bar for traditional pub fare, including steak-and-kidney pie or trifle. 11 a.m. Friday, December 26. 2425 Norfolk. For information, call 713-528-5999. -- Greg Barr
It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Kwanzaa
Zin brings glad tidings of the African-American holiday
Kwanzaa doesn't exactly bring to mind carols sung by the fire or performed ad infinitum by elementary school choirs. But thanks to local jazz/rock/hip-hop artist Zin, this African-based celebration has a sound all its own. This weekend, Zin and his band will perform songs based on the seven principles of Kwanzaa at the Midtown Art Center. Their CD, Kwanzaa, Principles of Life, Vol. 1, produced by Zin and D.R.U.M. bassist Osakwe Rikondja, is being rereleased this holiday season. Singer Michelle Thibeaux croons sweetly over the soulful "Imani," which means "faith." And the intensity of spoken word is highlighted on "Kuumba," which means "creativity." 7 p.m. Saturday, December 27. Midtown Art Center, 3414 Holman. For information, call 713-521-0629 or e-mail email@example.com. Free. -- Felicia Johnson-LeBlanc
Happiness Is a Warm Gun
If you're searching for overstimulation this New Year's Eve, Rubber Art Mob's "Happiness" at 101 Gallery should fill the bill nicely. From the same people who last year brought you a bullfight with a real matador and five live bulls, plus a bubble-wrapped cowboy-piñata for patrons to smack around, comes this year's event, which will feature a paintball shooting gallery with live human targets, Chinese lion pole dancers, a live Asian drum ensemble, a 12-man dragon dance with fireworks at midnight and (last but in no way least) a woman with champagne-spouting breasts, covered in chocolate mousse that you, this year's lucky patrons, are invited to eat. 8 p.m. Wednesday, December 31. 1011 Washington Avenue. For information and reservations, call 713-228-3997 or 713-822-4842. $40. -- Lisa Simon
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