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HOLIDAY GUIDE: Fill your season with the best bets for cupcake-making, candle-lighting, solstice reflection, and local retail

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The Union Square tree lighting is a highlight -- but there are plenty of alternatives for lowkey holiday celebrants this year.

The Nutcracker Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon, SF. www.cityballetschool.org. Dec. 8, 2pm & 7pm; Dec. 9, 2pm, $20. Yes, everyone does The Nutcracker. At this point, it's like the Rocky Horror Picture Show of ballet. (Would that ballet patrons donned Rat King costumes to attend!) Embrace the tradition, and check out the City Ballet School's production of a classic.

Charles Phoenix Retro Holiday Show Empress of China Ballroom, 838 Grant, SF. www.charlesphoenix.com. Dec. 12, 8pm, $25. The creator of the Cherpumple, a pie-stuffed cake concoction that rises to the dizzying heights of kitsch, humorist Charles Phoenix celebrates the retro in every occasion. Tonight, he regales the crowd with tales of his favorite SF landmarks, road trips, and yes, feats of food fantasy.

Holiday youth mariachi concert Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, 2868 Mission, SF. www.missionculturalcenter.org. Dec. 14, 7:30-9pm, $15. Three mariachi troupes made of young people join forces for this exciting holiday program. The hat-dropping, guitar plucking action will be highlighted by Zenon Barron's Mexican youth folk dance class.

The Snowman Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness, SF. (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org. Dec. 22, 11am, $13.50-57. Even the smallest budding season ticket holder will find this film-symphony presentation of Joe Nesbø's classic children's book a welcome boost to their holiday cheer. The animated version of this story of a youg'n' whose bud is a Frosty-like chap will soar when paired with the world-class musicians of the SF Symphony.

Kung Pao Kosher Comedy New Asia Restaurant, 772 Pacific, SF. www.koshercomedy.com. Dec. 22-25, various times, $44-64. There's nothing like having dinner on Christmas to up your alterna (or simply, not pan-Christian) cred. Add stand up comedy and you have a winning formula, which is obvious from the longevity of Lisa Gedulig's annual show. This year features yucks from Judy Gold, Mike Capozzola, and Adrianne Tolsch.

Clairdee's Christmas Yoshi's San Francisco, 1330 Fillmore, SF. (415) 655-5600, www.yoshis.com. Dec. 24, 8pm, $20. Everything could use a little soul in lives and the holidays are no exception. Come hear the sounds of soul-jazz vocalist Clairdee, and soak in her ensemble's rhythmic takes on Christmas standards.

"Holiday Memories" double feature A rare 16mm showing of Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales will be accompanied by a screening of The Sweater, a tale of a young hockey player's passion for the sport, and the dangers that come of wearing the wrong jumper. Dec. 22, 2pm, Exploratorium, 3601 Lyon, SF. (415) 563-7337, www.exploratorium.edu

PEACE ON EARTH

Darkness and Light: A Hanukkah Meditation Retreat Jewish Community Center, 3200 California, SF. (415) 292-1200, www.jccsf.org. Dec. 9, 10am-5pm, $50-60. No prior experience is needed for this day-long workshop on finding the light within during the Hanukkah season. Sitting and walking meditation will be covered — the perfect primer for a month that can try the patience of even the most festive reveler.

Winter solstice ceremony San Francisco Zen Center, 300 Page, SF. (415) 863-3136, www.sfzc.org. Dec. 21, 6:15pm, free. Recharge on the longest night of the year in the peaceful confines of the SF Zen Center. The crowd here promises to be made of meditation newbies, Zen Center students, and all those in-between. It will also be your best bet to avoid jingles and tinsel, if that's what your body is craving at this point.

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