Move over, Nutcracker: 12 holiday concerts to spark new traditions

Indie pop trio BETTY (Courtesy [Xpozd] Photography)
Indie pop trio BETTY (Courtesy [Xpozd] Photography)

The holidays usually find the Boston arts scene reviving some beloved favorites, including Boston Ballet’s “The Nutcracker,” the Handel + Haydn Society’s “Messiah” (being performed for its 170th consecutive year), or more recent annual traditions like the “Urban Nutcracker,” “Black Nativity” and “The Slutcracker.”

But along with these events, one can find musical holiday cheer that has its roots in New Orleans, Jamaica, Greece and the Dominican Republic, as well as from the minds of maverick musicians who approach the holiday concert through a decidedly different lens. Here’s a look at some of those concerts coming to town over the next few weeks.

'Christmas at the Castle'

Maliotis Cultural Center, Brookline | Dec. 1

In 1892, the Greek novelist and playwright Alexandros Papadiamantis published a short story called “Christmas at the Castle” that depicted the journey a group of Greek island villagers made to a remote castle to celebrate Christmas. “Christmas at the Castle” has been adapted into music by Boston’s Psaltikon Ensemble, a Boston vocal group dedicated to the music of Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean. This new piece employs a choir and small instrumental ensemble to recreate “the sound world of Papadiamantis.” The premiere will be held at the Maliotis Cultural Center of Hellenic College Holy Cross.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band

The Cabot, Beverly | Dec. 2

You won’t find much snow in Louisiana, but that hasn’t stopped the Crescent City’s ambassadors of traditional New Orleans jazz from coming up with what they’re calling a Creole Christmas tour. The touring version of the famed French Quarter venue’s house band is usually a sextet with tuba, saxophone, trumpet and trombone, and the sound is vintage New Orleans swing. The band was already well into its seventh decade before it released a holiday EP, but it has found a way to make the holidays sound like Mardi Gras.

Mr. Sun Plays Duke Ellington's 'Nutcracker Suite'

City Winery Haymarket Lounge, Boston | Dec. 6

The forward-looking all-star acoustic ensemble Mr. Sun is always up for a challenge. So it figures that their new album is not only an arrangement of the “Nutcracker Suite”' for bluegrass instruments, but they’ve based it on Duke Ellington’s 1960 recording of this holiday classic. Like everything done by the band — fiddler Darol Anger, guitarist Grant Gordy, mandolinist Joe K. Walsh and bassist Aidan O’Donnell — it’s both adventurous and tasty, and it proves that acoustic string band music can swing.

'Merry Christmas from José James'

The Regattabar, Cambridge | Dec. 7

José James has carved out a unique niche as a jazz singer who can hang with the hip-hop and neo-soul crowd. His last project was a well-executed tribute to Erykah Badu. Two years ago he released “Merry Christmas from José James,” which found him revisiting classics made famous by everyone from Donny Hathaway to Nat King Cole, as well as a seasonally appropriate “My Favorite Things,” a song John Coltrane made a jazz standard. James will be doing a pair of shows at the Regattabar in a duo with pianist Aaron Parks.

Hanukkah: The Festival of Lights

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston | Dec. 7

After a harrowing fall, many in the Jewish community will be eager to celebrate the joyous story of Hanukkah. The Jewish Arts Collaborative’s annual Hanukkah bash at the MFA will mark the first of the eight nights of Hanukkah with some noshes, arts and crafts, gallery talks and three sets of live music from Boston klezmer heroes Ezekiel’s Wheels.

Christian Sands' 'Christmas Stories'

Scullers Jazz Club, Boston | Dec. 8

Christmas jazz, especially when made by pianist-led combos, tends to lean toward the genre’s pleasant and comforting side — think “A Charlie Brown Christmas” by Vince Guaraldi. But one of modern jazz’s most thoughtful pianists, Christian Sands, has just released a new holiday album. Although many of the tracks are familiar, what Sands does with them on “Christmas Stories” exemplifies his expansive and exploratory approach. One example is his take on “Silent Night,” which sounds completely new thanks to Marvin Sewell’s searing guitar. Sands will be celebrating the LP with a pair of shows at Scullers.


Multiple locations | Dec. 10, 13 & 16

One Boston holiday tradition that will be sorely missed is the Christmas Celtic Sojourn concerts presented by Brian O’Donovan, who passed away in October. One of the countless Irish bands that O’Donovan championed was Lúnasa. Their annual Christmas tour comes to the Shalin Liu in Rockport (Dec. 10), the Spire Center in Plymouth (Dec. 16), and for two sold out shows at Somerville’s Burren (Dec. 13), where it will be, appropriately, part of the Brian O'Donovan Legacy Series. The normally instrumental band will be adding vocalist and guitarist Dave Curley for some Irish Christmas tunes.

Windborne's Music of Midwinter

Club Passim, Cambridge | Dec. 6 & 19

A Christmas Celtic Sojourn frequently featured the Boston-based internationally touring polyphonic vocal group Windborne, an ensemble that has found success singing very old songs on TikTok. This year, the group will be presenting a pair of their own shows at Passim, where the singers will share their favorite winter traditional folk songs from as far back as the 1500s — or as they put it, “songs of season you won’t hear in the mall.”

BETTY Holiday Show

City Winery Haymarket Lounge, Boston | Dec. 10

The feminist trio BETTY has long combined golden harmonies with lyrics that are both socially conscious and often very funny. Their 2004 album “Snowbiz” was a collection of originals that captured the joy and occasional toil of the holidays with selections like “Dreidle Jingle Fiasco” and a blues called “Holiday Office Party.” Since then, they’ve been the backing band for Gloria Steinem and started a podcast about their history (which included a holiday episode).

Boston Festival of New Jewish Music Hanukkah Party

The Center for the Arts at the Armory, Somerville | Dec. 13

The same band playing at the MFA, Ezekiel’s Wheels Klezmer Band, will be opening the festivities the next week at the Boston Festival of New Jewish Music’s Hanukkah bash at the Armory in Somerville. Headlining is the great clarinetist Michael Winograd & the Honorable Mentshn, who will be featuring Latvian Yiddish singer Sasha Lurje. The night concludes with Zach Mayer's Electronic Jerusalem.

The Slackers

The Sinclair, Cambridge | Dec. 17

The rulers of third wave ska, rocksteady and dub reggae have long carried the torch of Jamaican-tinged holiday shows. Unlike some of the other artists on this list, they truly celebrate more than one holiday: “Everyday Is Xmas,” “Dreidel” and a cover of U2’s “New Year's Day” are all apt to be found on their seasonal setlist. Openers Mustard Plug, The Freecoasters and Stop the Presses will make it a full night of ska festivities.

Banda Real's Party Navideño

Malayas Nightclub, Lawrence | Dec. 22

The quartet Banda Real is among the most prominent practitioners of merengue, the frenetic saxophone and accordion-driven sound of the Dominican Republic. Two years ago, they released a holiday single called “Popurrí Navideño,” and they’ll be providing the soundtrack for the Christmas party at one of Lawrence’s Latin music hot spots.


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Noah Schaffer Contributor
Noah Schaffer is a contributor to WBUR's arts and culture coverage.



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