It wouldn't be the Nutcracker Market without, well, nutcrackers.EXPAND
It wouldn't be the Nutcracker Market without, well, nutcrackers.
Photo by Fulton Davenport

Going Nuts: What's Hot at This Year's Houston Ballet Nutcracker Market

Shop, shop, shop until you drop, drop, drop with the annual favorite Nutcracker Market. The holiday gift-grabbing season is right around the corner, and this perennial shopper's paradise can turn the holiday into a "holi-yay!"

The massive event, scheduled for November 9-12 at NRG Center, will sell just about everything a shopper might dream of — from children's toys and furs to designer candles and boutique pop-up shops — with all proceeds going to the Houston Ballet Academy and its scholarship programs.

No one knows this 37-year-old event quite like its CEO, Patsy Chapman, who has worked on the Nutcracker Market for the previous 29 years. Chapman started working for Houston Ballet in 1989 to help out with the market, and watched it grow so much that it is now a full-time job for the entire year.

"The market grew so much," she says. "Now I dedicate my entire day to the Nutcracker Market only. I have a staff of six, and this is what we do all day, every day. It is a lot of moving pieces. We’re one of the largest fundraising events at NRG Park, second to the Rodeo."

The Nutcracker Market occupies a total of more than 540,000 square feet of space. In comparison, the largest stores in the Houston Galleria mall occupy 250,000 square feet (Macy's) and 226,000 square feet (Neiman Marcus). Just walking the market will be a guaranteed way to get in your daily steps.

The small but mighty team, along with nearly 1,000 volunteers, puts together the event and coordinates all its logistics each year. In 2016 they welcomed an estimated 96,000 shoppers to peruse merchandise from 279 vendors — who came from 34 states and 185 cities — to raise more than $18 million. Of that amount, $4.6 million went to fund the Houston Ballet's efforts.

They did all that over the course of four days. Not too shabby.

People go in droves to the Nutcracker Market to shop for unique and fun holiday items.EXPAND
People go in droves to the Nutcracker Market to shop for unique and fun holiday items.
Photo by Fulton Davenport

Throughout her nearly three-decade career of organizing the event, Chapman has developed a keen sense of which items will be the biggest hits each year. For 2017, she already has a few trinkets she thinks will be top sellers.

First on her hot list is a vendor from Metairie, Louisiana, named Lil’ Bit Enterprises, that sells a children's play-set version of crawfish boil items.

"It’s a plastic pot with the strainer, crab boil, plastic corn and potatoes, tongs and everything else. They sell for $35 per kit, and I think they’re going to sell like crazy," she says. "They’re too cute to explain. You have to see it in person to see how adorable it is, and I can see every parent or grandparent buying one for holiday gifts.

Speaking of steamed heat, Chapman also notes the Houston Fire Department will be back with its oh-so-popular autographed calendars.

"They can get pretty crafty with their personalizations," she says, while likely blushing.

This year the Nutcracker market welcomes Hearth Hounds from West Springfield, Massachusetts, which Chapman thinks will be quite popular with dog lovers. The company makes holiday stockings for man's best friend, made out of velvet and resembling a multitude of dog breeds.

Illuminidol leaves no stone unturned when looking for famous people to feature on its candles.EXPAND
Illuminidol leaves no stone unturned when looking for famous people to feature on its candles.
Photo by Fulton Davenport

Another one of Chapman's not-to-miss items is Austin-based Illuminidol's celebrity-bedecked candles. Images of everyone from Beyoncé to Willie Nelson to the 2016 presidential candidates have graced them.

"They’re keeping Austin weird! They sell celebrity prayer candles," she says. "They have hundreds to choose from. Everybody is on the prayer candle. Hopefully someone sees the humor and satire in them."

Aside from the new vendors, Chapman says there are some traditional favorites that tend to go over well with the customers.

"We have a raffle called 'Dine Around,' and we have 52 restaurants participating in the raffle. You can eat out once a week all year at all kinds of restaurants in Houston," she says.

There are also fashion shows from Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy's that are likely going to sell out.

To handle all this shopping, one must eat a breakfast of champions. Of course, we're talking about mimosas, and the Nutcracker Market hasn't left that detail out either.

"We have our famous mimosa cart that rolls up and down the lobby as guests are standing in line waiting for us to open in the morning. They’ll serve it to you in a lovely Nutcracker Market-designed cup," Chapman says.

Shoppers will need all that fuel, too, for an all-day extravaganza. The regular market runs 10 a.m. to 8 p.m November 9 and 10 and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on November 11 and 12; tickets start as low as $18. However, for early-bird shoppers who are willing to cough up a little extra cash, the market opens from 8:30 to 10 a.m. on Thursday and Friday.

Get ready for a shopping frenzy at the Nutcracker Market.EXPAND
Get ready for a shopping frenzy at the Nutcracker Market.
Photo by Fulton Davenport

For on-the-go shoppers looking to get in, get out and get on with life, Chapman says there's a strategic sweet spot. Three hours prior to closing, half-priced tickets go on sale each day.

She adds, "We have around 100,000 visitors throughout the run of the Nutcracker Market, so it is busy, busy, busy. If you come a little later in the afternoon, you can avoid some of the long lines and crowds."

And for the time-savvy person who wants to completely avoid the masses, the opening party on Wednesday evening is a sure bet.

"We have a preview party sponsored by Wells Fargo from 6:30 to 10 p.m. It’s a giant cocktail party with shopping. There are bars, buffets and a band on the stage. It's a fun way to shop without the huge crowd, and you’re the first ones in the door," Chapman said. "The preview party has a cult following of people who know what will sell out, and people want to get there first."

Tickets for the preview party ring in at $250. With so much happening, the Nutcracker Market is Houston's kickoff to the holiday season. Well, that and the 24-hour holiday songs on Sunny 99.1, but even then, they have something in common.

"We have shuttles going around the parking lots," Chapman says. "Sometimes people sing Christmas carols on the shuttles. People really get into it."

The Nutcracker Market begins with a preview party 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 8, and runs daily through November 12 at NRG Center, One NRG Park. For information, visit the Houston Ballet website. Tickets range from $18 to $250.

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