If you doubt that the holiday season is finally here (or if you've been hiding under your bed in stubborn denial), the definitive harbinger of its local arrival has once again reared its top-hatted head: the annual run of A Christmas Carol at the American Conservatory Theater. For a month at the end of each year, Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Williams clear the stage to make way for Scrooge, Cratchit, and Tiny Tim, who entertain theatergoers young and old with what is probably the most famous holiday ghost story ever told. To date, ACT has staged the theatrical adaptation of Dickens' classic 832 times for an estimated 775,000 audience members, so the company must be doing somethingright.
This year, Steven Anthony Jones returns as everyone's favorite miser, while ACT Conservatory students fill out the ensemble, including the Ghost of Christmas Past (word is Gray Davis was already booked). Scrooge and his Victorian compatriots weave their tale once more as the play opens today at 2 p.m. (and runs until Dec. 26) at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Admission is $11-68; call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. – Jack Karp
Crash! Bang! Clank!
Anyone who's graduated from the eighth grade knows how we hear: Vibrations travel through the air, hit the eardrum, and are transformed into electrical signals that are passed on to the brain. But this physiological explanation fails to clear up many audiological mysteries. Why is chalk screeching down a blackboard excruciating while an orchestra trilling The Rite of Spring delightful? Why do minor-key songs sadden us and Philip Glass' compositions infuriate us? The Bay Area Discovery Museum's "Play It By Ear"exhibit can't promise to answer that last one, but the hands-on exploration of noises dissonant and euphonious gives kids a solid grounding in the science and art of sound. Young visitors can fool around with a giant interactive music box, a keyboard hooked up to dancing springs, and a soundstage that translates movements into clangs, moans, and tones, among other clamorous experiments. Hear it starting at 9 a.m. Wednesday at 557 McReynolds (at Murray), Sausalito. Admission is free-$7; call 339-3900 or visit www.baykidsmuseum.org. – Joyce Slaton
Brilliant! When the lights go up in the city
Nothing says "Happy Holidays" like keeping the neighbors up all night with 1,000 watts of blinking red and green light. Given the potentially exorbitant electric bills, you may want to save the glittering reindeer and go see several local holiday light displays, which allow your family to enjoy all the season's twinkling electronic goodness yet still leave you with enough money for the kids' presents. Visit Ghirardelli Square for a celebration that features face-painting, a puppet show, carolers, the requisite cameo by Mr. Claus, and the lighting of a 50-foot tree decked in chocolate bars (who needs sugarplums?). If you prefer to wear, rather than eat, your holiday treats, head to Macy's Union Square tree-illuminating festivities, where you can top off the day by diving head-first into the North Pole of holiday shopping and dropping some serious cash at designer outlets and department stores. If the kids slow you down, leave them on Santa's lap to rattle off their own wish lists. In the East Bay, revelers can enjoy the holiday party at Jack London Square. An afternoon of live music and crafts is followed by the switching on of yet another giant tree (feel sorry for the garbage men who have to haul them away in January).
The trees and kids' faces brighten up Ghirardelli Square at noon at 900 North Point (at Larkin), 775-5500 or www.ghirardellisq.com; at 6 p.m. at Union Square Park, Geary & Powell, 781-7880; and at noon at Jack London Square, Broadway & Embarcadero, Oakland, (866) 295-9853 or www.jacklondonsquare.com. Admission to all events is free. – Jack Karp
It might have started with altcountry label Bloodshot Records' children's album The Bottle Let Me Down, but rockers these days seem keen on making music for little 'uns. This weekend it's former Del Fuegos singer Dan Zanes & Friends, whose multicultural rock and folk albums, featuring guests like Bob Weir and Deborah Harry, have been popular with kids and parents. The concert begins at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft & Telegraph, UC Berkeley campus. Admission is $7.50-20; call (510) 642-9988 or visit www.calperfs.berkeley.edu. – Hiya Swanhuyser
The Real Toy Train
Trains are so romantic. Decked out with lights and tinsel, a choo-choo's even cooler – and if it brings Santa, a brass band, carolers, and a chance to donate toys for needy kids, as the Caltrain Holiday Traindoes, it might even be exciting for commuters. Check it out at 4:30 p.m. at the S.F. Terminal, Fourth & King streets. Free; call (800) 660-4287 or visit www.caltrain.com. – Hiya Swanhuyser