COVER- Hook for the Holidays!- Our guide to local holiday tradition

Each November and December, an ever-growing chorus sings the same refrain: "The holidays have gotten too commercial!" Yes, spending on gifts is higher than ever, and yes, it's easy to lose focus on what's important about this time of year.

But luckily for us, we live in a town rich in holiday traditions that, by and large, don't require spending a dime. So flex your vocal cords for singing, sharpen your saw for cutting a tree, and check out all the wonders our area has to offer at this "most wonderful time of the year."

Lights a' blinking

Norford and Meeks go all out

There's Christmas lights, and then there's Jeff Norford and Steve Meeks. Each year, thousands flock to their houses at 1307 Mountain View Street and 5000 Meeks Run for some of the best holiday displays this side of the Blue Ridge.

For Norford, the tradition has its genesis in childhood.

"When I was younger, I told my mother my house was going to be covered in lights," he says. 

Norford, who delivers the Hook when he's not hanging lights, made that dream a reality 11 years ago when he started lighting up his house for his godchildren. Now it's nothing short of a happening.

"I have about 40,000 lights and 35 blowups," he says. "And if it's anything like last year, I'll be dressed as Santa giving out around 4,000 candy canes to 12,000 or so visitors."

Lights and blowups don't do it for Meeks. While he's not renovating houses in Scottsville, he builds a whole village of holiday cheer on his property in Crozet, although it didn't begin that way.

"I started it in 1994, putting lights up on the house the year my daughter was born," he explains. "And she was so in awe that I put up more lights the next year, and it just kept growing."

Now visitors can navigate a whole circuit of wonders including a nativity scene, a reindeer shed, and even a penguin village. 

Neither Norford nor Meeks has any financial support during the setup process, but both say that the public has been generous enough with donations to more than cover the electric bill, with the rest of the funds going to buying more lights or to local charities.

But... why do it?

"It's another way I can give back to the community," Meeks says.

"Everybody loves it," says Norford. "It's become a tradition for a lot of families, and I'm happy to do it."

Wanna see all the best lights in Charlottesville in one trip? The Holly Trolley, sponsored by the Downtown Business Association, takes families around to all the best houses in Charlottesville for free December 15-17 from 5:30-8:30. Call 977-1812 to make reservations beginning December 4.

–Lindsay Barnes

Jeff Norford started his light display for the sake of his godchild Chad Snow and all the rest of his godchildren.  Now he estimates he'll hang over 40,000 Christmas lights this year.

Jefferson's a' hosting

Night tours of Monticello

For the first time, Monticello is offering its evening Signature Tour, popular during the summer, on Tuesdays and Saturdays during the month of December.

The Holiday Signature Tours allow a small group of 20 people with two guides to explore the house on an hour-long tour.

"Because the tour takes place after hours, they have the house to themselves," Monticello director of  communications Wayne Mogielnicki says. "It's a much more intimate experience."

The tour includes the usually off-limits upstairs, including the Dome room, whose exterior gives the mansion its distinctive appearance on the obverse side of the nickel.

"Jefferson and his era were not big on decorations, so the house will be decorated in historically accurate greenery," Mogielnicki says. 

Advance tickets ($35) required for the tour can be purchased online at or at 984-9822. 

Sara Gilliam

This December, people have the rare opportunity to see Monticello at night.

Families a' chopping

Cut your own tree at Ash Lawn-Highland  

Starting the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve, families are invited to chop their own Christmas Tree in James Monroe's backyard at Ash Lawn-Highland. The fields are open 11am-4pm. "You should call ahead to check which fields are open that day," Ash Lawn employee Mary Anne Benvenutti says.

Visitors need to bring their own supplies to cut down the tree and secure it to their car. And this is no fir farm; the trees are wild cedars. But they have an intense evergreen smell, and you might even get more than than you paid for.

"There's no flat price set for the trees," Benvenutti says. "All we ask is for a donation."

Guided tours of James Monroe's house continue throughout the season, with the house decorated for the holidays from December 9 through New Years. The regular entrance fee is $9/adults, $8/seniors, and $5/children. The $5 entrance fee for local visitors (including Charlottesville and Ablemarle residents) is  waived if you bring an out-of-town guest. Info: 293-9539. 

–Sara Gilliam

This one's probably off limits, but there are plenty of trees at Ash Lawn-Highland you can cut down for your own Christmas tree.

Santa's a'rriving

True, this is his busy season, but Santa Claus loves his Dave Matthews Band and his Jeffersonian architecture so much that he's carved out time to come to Charlottesville at the height of the holiday season.

Children of all ages can bend the big guy's ear on the Downtown Mall on November 26 when he hops down from his carriage after his 1:30pm arrival. After caroling at Central Place, Santa will set up shop at April's Corner to listen to requests from this year's good girls and boys until 5pm. 

An audience with the man in red is going to be in high demand, and it's first-come, first-served. So get there early! Info: 977-1812.

Lindsay Barnes

He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, so when you meet him on the Downtown Mall, introducing yourself is unnecessary.

Paraders a' marching

Barracks Road Holiday Parade

Forget the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The Christmas season in Charlottesville may not have hundred-foot tall plastic Bart Simpsons ambling down our main drag, but the folks at Barracks kick off in a big way with the annual Barracks Road Holiday Parade at 9:30am Friday, November 24.

This year the line-up features costumed characters, floats, marching bands from area schools, and horsedrawn carriages. Winnie-the-Pooh will meet and greet at Barnes & Noble, and of course no holiday festivity is complete without Santa, who'll let tots climb into his sleigh and sit in his lap by the fountain.  Info: 804-673-3102, 804-512-1698.

–Courteney Stuart

Come for the shopping, stay for the cute kids and llamas.

Singers (Plus You!) a' singing

Handel's Messiah Sing-In at Old Cabell Hall

You know how it is when the only way to get a song out of your head is by singing it? About 50 people around UVA had this affliction in January 1968, and choral professor Donald Loach decided to do something about it.

"The Oratorio Society had just put on a good performance of Handel's Messiah, and there were a number of people who still had the scores in hand," he says. "I figured there must be other people who'd like to sing those choruses, so we set up a sing-in in Old Cabell Hall and said, 'Let's see who shows up.'"

Thirty-eight years later, it's become an annual holiday tradition that attracts around 450 eager singers and orchestral musicians from all over Virginia. 

"It's informal, there are no rehearsals, nobody's paid," Loach explains. "Everyone picks up a score on the way in, we seat everyone in the auditorium seats, divided into sections by vocal range, and we have a good time."

All people need to bring is $5 (which goes to three different UVA choral groups) and, above all, a desire to sing out. 

"This is not a spectator event," Loach says. "People come to sing, not to listen. Especially on the 'Hallelujah' chorus at the end. Everyone always has a great time singing that."

This year's sing-in is 8pm Wednesday, December 6.

–Lindsay Barnes

Open wide and say "Hallelujah!"

More music a' playing

The Family Holiday Concerts at Old Cabell Hall

In case you can't make it to the sing-in, the "Hallelujah" chorus will be ringing in Old Cabell Hall during the 2006 Family Holiday concerts. The second annual concert series presented by the Charlottesville and University Symphony Orchestra with the University Singers takes place Saturday, December 2, at 8pm and Sunday, December 3, at 3:30pm. The program– led by conductor Michael Slon– features holiday favorites including "Sleigh Ride" and "The Twelve Days of Christmas." 

This year, soloist Travis Tucker– recent UVA American Idol entrant– joins the orchestra on select pieces. Get tix at the Cabell Hall Box Office, 924-3984.

–Sara Gilliam

UVA and American Idol alum Travis Tucker will be on hand to sing at the University's 2006 Family Holiday concerts.

Galleries a' showing

McGuffey Open House and UVA Art Museum Auction

Holiday ornaments need not be limited to knick-knacks and cheesy imported baubles. With the help of the McGuffey Art Center and the UVA Art Museum, festive decorators can create their own glass ornaments or purchase one-of-a-kind delights by local artists.

From now until December 31, the McGuffey is to art lovers what a candy store is to kids. Patrons can stroll into studios to watch the artists at work, and when something tickles their fancy, they can walk out with a brand new addition to their collection. A reception to commemorate this once-a-year opportunity is slated for December 2, 10am-4pm. 

On Saturdays (10am-6pm) and Sundays (1-5pm) creative types can blow their own glass ornaments ($20) at the McGuffey. Get all the details at 295-6300.

Also on December 2, the UVA Art Museum hosts its annual Holiday Art Auction from 5:30 to 9:30pm. This year, swanky 1930s theme'd soiree offers swing music and cocktails. Starting bids range from $50-$1,000 for original works by such artists as Sam Abell, Johanna Drucker, and Tim O'Kane. 

 And you don't even need a loud voice or one of those paddles to walk home with a work of art. This auction is of the silent variety.

 –Lindsay Barnes

In the spirit of holiday hospitality, the McGuffey Art Center's doors will be open for the general public through New Years Eve.

Cherry pickers a' hoisting

The Toy Lift

Ever since 1988 when Tom Powell climbed into a cherry picker to collect a thousand toys for needy kids, the Toy Lift has been a feel-good holiday institution that unites the community. This year's event is scheduled for December 8 at Charlottesville Fashion Square mall, where secret Santas can drop off cash, toys (preferably new), and books between 7am and 9pm.

Also at auxiliary sites in Ruckersville, Crozet, and Lake Monticello, generous donors can see local notables soar above the crowds while they experience the best in local school and Beatles tribute bands with this year's headliner, Abbey Road.

 Pray for good weather, instructs co-president Allison Brewer. "We've been iced out the past two years," she says.

–Lisa Provence

Toy Lift organizers hope for weather like this, especially since the event has been greeted with ice the last two years.

Shakespeareans a' Scrooging

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries at the Blackfriars Playhouse

Humbuggery has never been so much fun as when the American Shakespeare Center puts on these two annual holiday productions at its home, Staunton's Blackfriars Playhouse.

"What's great is we have this one-two punch," says ASC artistic director Jim Warren. "We get the treat of both a Dickens Christmas and a slightly snarky David Sedaris Christmas. Most places might choose to do one or the other, but rarely do you get them both."

Sedaris' tale chronicles a struggling artist in New York who takes a job as a Macy's elf to make ends meet. It's the third year the ASC has done the shows simultaneously, but even for those who've seen them, there are still plenty of surprises.

"It's a different cast and different director, and all the special effects are generated by the actors themselves," says Warren. "So things like the creepiness of the ghosts in A Christmas Carol are different every year."

The Santaland Diaries previews at 7:30pm December 5-7, opens December 8, and runs through December 31. A Christmas Carol opens December 9 and closes on the night of the 31st. Call 540-851-1733 for show times and ticket prices.

–Lindsay Barnes

Paul Fidalgo plays Macy's elf "Crumpet" in David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries.

Revelers a' counting

First Night Virginia

Ringing in the New Year is fun for the whole family at First Night Virginia, and this year– the 25th anniversary– promises big fun with 75 performances happening at 20 locations all over downtown. 

The events begin at 2:30pm and continue all afternoon and through the evening. After an opening processional sweeps the Downtown Mall from 5-6pm, the hard-core fun begins: musical performances from acts including John McCutcheon, Terri Allard, and Ernie Hawkins, magic from Monticup, short films at Light House and theatrical performances at Live Arts. (No Jefferson Theater this year, as its under renovation.) The night ends with a spectacular fireworks display at midnight.

The best thing: since the entire event is alcohol-free, revelers are practically guaranteed to ring in 2007 hangover-free. Admission buttons sold in advance ($13 adult/$6 child) at Timberlake's Drug Store, Volvo of Charlottesville, both Plan 9 locations, Blue Ridge Mountain Sports (Barracks Road Shopping Center), Sidetracks (218 Water St.), the Paramount theater, and Dippin Dots (Fashion Square Mall). 975-8269 or

–Courteney Stuart

As you can see, Steven Levine is First Night Virginia's top man.