Even after relocating to this coast, I continued to make the annual holiday trek to the wilds of northern New Jersey, filling the airplane's overhead compartment with an assortment of gifts I had evidently chosen for their heaviness and breakability. Not until I finally gave up my transcontinental holiday journey to the East Coast — my heavy, breakable carry-ons having expanded to include a small child — did I discover that, although it's untraditional, San Francisco is filled with yuletide pleasures.
In fact, it's San Francisco's very untraditional-ness that makes it such a refreshing place to spend the holidays.
That's not to suggest that my adopted city ignores the holiday in favor of some nondenominational, diversity-inspired celebration of winter solstice (although, if that's what you're in the mood for, you'll have no trouble finding several). The city's ballet companies put on the full quota of "Nutcrackers," of course. But in this town, at least one of them will rent you a tutu and let you dance along. And sure, San Francisco has plenty of carolers. But rather than raising their voices in praise of the wassail cup, ours are more likely to be singing something called "Daddy's Drinkin' Up Our Christmas."
And if all this unconventional merriment isn't enough incentive, consider your pocketbook. The fact that everybody else is heading off across the ocean or the continent means that San Francisco-bound travelers can find December deals on airfares and hotel rooms. Even the venerable Fairmont Hotel has a Christmas package that includes accommodations as well as dinner and a retelling of "A Christmas Carol" by the great-great-grandson of Charles Dickens, for $339.
These days, when I think about holiday travel destinations, I think about the Gay Men's Chorus singing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and about comedy and cashew chicken in Chinatown, and I don't think of going anywhere else. And you might not want to either, whether you make the trip this year or save it all up for next.
Indeed, for those of you who are ready to take your holiday travel beyond "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," the following is my very personal, very untraditional Does-This-Tutu-Make-Me-Look-Fat? guide to Christmas in San Francisco.
I don't care if you're the most steadfast secular humanist or adamant atheist on the planet, 10 minutes into this gospel play and you'll feel like testifying. "Black Nativity," written by Langston Hughes, is a soul-shaking mix of gospel and dance, and unless your congregation included Aretha Franklin and Alvin Ailey, it's unlike anything you ever experienced in church on Christmas Eve.
When I was in the church choir, the angels wore cardboard wings, the shepherds dressed in their fathers' bathrobes and Mary's head covering began life as somebody's shower curtain. We sang "Hark the Herald" and "Joy to the World," mostly off-key. In "Black Nativity," the angels are dressed in glittery robes of lime green and pink, the shepherds wear dreadlocks and sing like Marvin Gaye, and Mary — impressively limber for a woman heavy with child — dances.
Hughes wanted "Black Nativity" to make the audience members feel as though they had wandered into a Harlem church on a Sunday morning, and Act 2 is nothing less than a big, rousing gospel service. Deacons, identifiable by the enormous gold badges pinned to their lapels, wander the audience shaking hands, and church ladies in fur-edged hats rattle the rafters with their musical voices. It's an hour of rhymed preaching and vocal pyrotechnics that's so contagious, even those of us who stood around in our cardboard wings pretending to hit the high notes will be compelled to let out a few unrestrained "Hallelujahs!"
Through Dec. 19. Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter St.; (415) 474-8800, http://www.lhtsf.com . Tickets $25-$32.
Christmas Jug Band
Take half a dozen unreconstructed hippies (including '60s icon and legendary harmonica player Norton Buffalo). Add a few kazoos, a washtub bass and a couple of guitars. Throw in some red plaid shirts, and spice it all up with an assortment of holiday songs like "Santa Claus Want Some Lovin'." What you have is a recipe for the Christmas Jug Band.
These self-proclaimed kings of 100% acoustic folk-skiffle-swing and holiday high jinks have been playing Christmas concerts since the mid-'70s, coming together in what the band refers to as "a momentary lapse of sanity that became an annual holiday tradition." The Christmas Jug Band usually plays one or two dates in towns just outside San Francisco (in Mill Valley and Berkeley this year); it's worth the hour or so drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge to see the performance in the little Marin town of Nicasio.
This is home turf for most of these guys, and the shows at Rancho Nicasio have a nice family feel. Rancho Nicasio is the kind of restaurant that has stuffed elk heads above the bar and prime rib on the menu, and its waitresses are completely uninterested in impressing you with their knowledge of esoteric vegetables. In other words, it's a fitting place to see a bunch of guys play Christmas songs on instruments that can also be used to launder clothing.
Like the waitresses at Rancho Nicasio, the Christmas Jug Band doesn't even pretend to hipness, which can be liberating. Last time I saw them, I danced with my husband, Ken, to "Jingle Bell Rock," with my 9-year-old son, Alex, to the all-kazoo version of "Let It Snow" and — with no embarrassment whatsoever — by myself to a rousing version of "S-A-N-T-A" (sung to the tune of "Gloria," which Van Morrison fans will recall).
Shows at Rancho Nicasio (1 Old Rancheria Road,  662-2219) take place at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19. Tickets $12-$15; kids younger than 8, $8. For information on the band, (415) 383-0629 or http://www.christmasjugband.com .
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