A comprehensive guide to everything worth doing this holiday season

A comprehensive guide to everything worth doing this holiday season

This season, Toronto is buzzing with under-the-radar holiday concerts, art shows and comedies. Here, we break down the best bets

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 Photograph by Justin Broadbend

12 Trees of Christmas, an adventurous take on a holiday tradition
Every December, the Gardiner Museum enlists a dozen artists to design as many dazzling Christmas trees. This year, the tradition goes green: the trees are crafted from recycled materials, including a hand-carved canoe, strips of discarded dress shirts, salvaged Stratford Festival scripts, and wood and felt made to look like birds’ beaks. To Jan. 8, Gardiner Museum.

 

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 Photograph courtesy of Soulpepper

A 1940s radio play rendition of It’s a Wonderful Life 
There’s no frosty bridge, no snow-kissed streets, no friend-filled living room—in Soulpepper’s radio play riff on Frank Capra’s mid-century masterpiece, there’s little more than old-fashioned microphones. Seven actors voice dozens of characters, including folksy hero George Bailey and Clarence, the wise old angel who saves him from an icy demise. Dec. 9 to 24, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.

 

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 Photograph by Shervin Lainez

Stars’ cathartic Christmas concert
The emotive indie band’s annual holiday concerts are quickly becoming a December must-see. They’ll play a few of their own tunes, of course, but the fun’s in the covers: the group released a bunch of covers this year (including tunes by Bob Dylan, Kanye West, Beyoncé and a strangely addictive rendition of “I Took A Pill In Ibiza”). They’ve also promised the more seasonal “Fairytale of New York,” a Christmas classic by the Pogues. Dec. 21, Danforth Music Hall.

 

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 Photograph courtesy Louise Pitre

Coal Mine Theatre’s holiday double bill
The Danforth’s youngest theatre caps its third year with this show. First up, a raunchy Christmas concert from powerhouse chanteuse Louise Pitre. Then, Kenneth Welsh (Twin Peaks’s Windom Earle) performs an old-timey reading of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales—a nostalgic vignette of the holidays from the idealistic view of a young boy. Dec. 13 to 23, Coal Mine Theatre.

 

A non-stop holiday movie marathon
Why stay on the couch when you can watch your favourite Christmas films with fellow fans? Hot Docs offers a festival of holiday perennials: Elf, White Christmas, Love Actually, Christmas Vacation, Jingle All the Way, A Christmas Story, The Holiday and quote-along screenings of Home Alone and Die Hard. As a wise man once said: “Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals.” Dec. 16 to 23, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

 

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 Photograph courtesy John Ordean/Oneintenwords.com

Your favourite local artists covering their favourite tunes
At bluesy songsmith Sam Cash’s third annual Cover Me Impressed bash, Brendan Canning, twangy songwriter Charlotte Cornfield and others will play their favourite cover tunes. The concert is Toronto’s newest holiday tradition and its biggest steal: admission is a non-perishable food or cash donation. Dec. 22, Lee’s Palace.

 

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 Photograph courtesy of The TSO

A choose-your-own-Messiah adventure
December delivers Toronto’s most entertaining classical-music smackdown: the quest to produce the most brilliant performance of Handel’s epic oratorio. Purists can opt for the TSO’s take, a loyal rendering featuring the mighty oomph of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Those who want to get interactive can try Tafelmusik’s Sing-Along Messiah, a triumphantly gimmicky blast. For something entirely different, Ballet Creole’s funked-up Soulful Messiah pairs a bluesy gospel soundtrack with tap, modern and Afro-Caribbean dance. Various dates, Roy Thomson Hall (TSO), Massey Hall (Tafelmusik) and Fleck Dance Theatre (Ballet Creole).

 

A lighter TSO outing
Not into Messiah? The TSO gets goofy with this Christmas pageant, hosted by Who’s Line Is It Anyway? star Colin Mochrie. Expect your favourite carols performed by the Resonance Youth Choir, the Highland Creek Pipe Band, and Tha Spot Holiday Dancers, plus kid-friendly activities with Avenue Road Arts School during intermission. (For a taste, see clips from another Mochrie-hosted TSO night above.) Dec. 9, Roy Thomson Hall.

 

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 Photograph courtesy of The Wooden Sky

The Wooden Sky’s folkie holiday gigs
The band’s last album, 2014’s Let’s Be Ready, was one of the best Canadian folk-rock records in recent years. You can hear it (and a few new tunes, surely) at this show, the band’s seventh annual holiday revue. There won’t be a deluge of Christmas hits, but the setting (an old church) and good cause (proceeds support Romero House’s refugee services) should provide the right atmosphere. Dec. 14 and 15, 918 Bathurst.

 

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 Photograph courtesy Twist Your Dickens

A Second City spoof of A Christmas Carol
Colbert Report alumni Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort wrote Twist Your Dickens, a saucy Christmas Carol send-up that lampoons everything Christmas lovers hold sacred. Second City’s production stars Just for Laughs joker Seán Cullen and Patrick McKenna (the geeky half of the Red Green Show), and features improv, planted hecklers and a few requisite Dickens puns. Dec. 2 to 30, Toronto Centre for the Arts.

 

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 Photograph by Norman Wong

Andy Kim’s festive variety show
Legendary singer-songwriter Andy Kim—a.k.a. the man behind “Sugar, Sugar”—has raised more than $500,000 for local charities with his annual holiday variety show. The 12th instalment features Nelly Furtado, Ron Sexsmith, Sloan and Hey Rosetta! frontman Tim Baker, and proceeds will support CAMH. Dec. 7, Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

 

A Christmas Carol, Soulpepper .
 Photograph by Cylla von Tiedemann

A parody-free Christmas Carol
In Soulpepper’s annual Scrooge switcheroo, a ghostly intervention turns an elderly miser into the life of the Christmas party. Of course, you’ve heard the story a thousand times, which means you already know only an Ebenezer type would dare pooh-pooh this Christmas tradition. Michael Shamata returns as director, having helmed the show seven times since 2001. Dec. 5 to 24, Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

 

A Yuletide zine market
Anyone can buy a gift on Amazon—this year, go full DIY. The 40-plus vendors at the Holiday Zine and Maker Fair will stock all manner of indie zines, comics and prints—like Anna May Henry‘s adorable Christmas food greeting cards—and handmade presents: jewellery, T-shirts and crafts. Dec. 17, Xpace Cultural Centre.

 

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 Photograph by Hok Ng

The city’s best (literally) underground concert series
Every year, troubadour Jason Collett draws on his impressive Rolodex (Margaret Atwood, Sheila Heti) and old Broken Social Scene buds (Kevin Drew, Feist) to program the Basement Revue, a stellar series of mystery performances that land somewhere between concert and literary salon. Thursdays, Dec. 1 to 29, Dakota Tavern and Great Hall.

 

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 Image courtesy of the Toronto Consort

Christmas à la Medieval times
Contrary to their name, the Dark Ages produced some of the lightest, most serene Christmas music. Some of those great hymns and liturgical classics are on offer in this concert, an evening that combines Yuletide tunes by Hildegard of Bingen and Anna of Cologne with projections of medieval paintings, books and stained glass. Dec. 9 to 11, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.

 

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 Photograph courtesy of Six Shooter Records

The smooth, festive harmonies of the Good Lovelies
Toronto’s most irrepressibly sweet folk trio celebrates a decade together with this special holiday event, which will feature songs from their two Christmas albums—2009’s Under the Mistletoe and 2015’s Winter’s Calling—and traditional yuletide tunes. The troubadours’ year-round easy chemistry, warmth and good cheer are a particularly good fit for the season. Dec. 10 and 11, Harbourfront Centre Theatre.

 

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 Photograph by David Hou

A multicultural winter solstice dance show
There’s a whole world of ways to celebrate the holidays. To wit: the Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre’s WinterSong draws on solstice traditions from around the globe, exploring how different cultures interpret the season. This year’s production features the premiere of a new piece by hyperphysical choreographer Ryan Lee, plus the return of Colin Connor’s Against the Dark, which explores similarities in the Chinese and Native American stories about the origins of the sun. Dec. 9 and 10, Fleck Dance Theatre.

 

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 Photograph courtesy of the Toronto Children's Chorus

The 400-voice oomph of the Toronto Children’s Chorus
The Toronto Children’s Chorus is that rare thing: a children’s choral group that regular people—not just choristers’ parents—will gladly pay money to hear. In this annual holiday event, more than 300 youngsters join 100 alumni for an afternoon of Christmas favourites, as well as a reading of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales by actor Geraint Wyn-Davies. Dec. 17, Roy Thomson Hall.