As much as marketing experts would like us to believe, the holiday season is about much more than commerce.
It's history, traditions, the arts, family experiences and the type of fun that creates long-lasting memories. Sprinkle in Maryland-specific treasures — train gardens, Stoop Storytelling and John Waters — and there is no excuse not to have your planner filled with events this season. (And yes, plenty offer excuses to shop, too.) Start with these options:
This month-long celebration of events all around Towson offers something for everyone, from Breakfast with the Grinch ($5-$10; 8:30 a.m. Dec. 12) to Ho Ho Ho Happy Hours (Dec. 10, Dec. 17) at participating bars. Through Dec. 17. towsonchamber.com.
Lights on the Bay, Ocean City Winterfest of Lights and Holiday Lights by helicopter
Take your decorative lights-gazing to another level this year. Anne Arundel Medical Center's Lights on the Bay ($15-$50; runs through Jan. 2) has a 3-D light show you see by driving through Sandy Point State Park (1100 E. College Parkway, Annapolis). The Winterfest of Lights ($5 and children under 12 are free; runs through Jan. 3) boasts more than a million holiday lights throughout a mile-long trail in Northside Park (125th Street, Bayside). Finally, you can get an aerial view of Baltimore and Annapolis lights via a ride from Monumental Helicopters ($525; 7505 General Aviation Drive, Fort Meade; through Dec. 30). lightsonthebay.org; ococean.com/events; monumentalhelicopters.com.
It's a Waterfront Life
Wintertime in the city means plenty to do along the waterfront. See an immersive "The Polar Express" at the National Aquarium ($5 with aquarium admission; through Jan. 3), rent some skates for the Inner Harbor's ice rink ($4 rental; $7-$9 admission; through Jan. 18) or watch local choral groups perform as you sip free hot chocolate for Harbor East's inaugural Merriment & Melodies series (free; 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m. Dec. 9 and Dec. 16). Through Jan. 17. itsawaterfrontlife.org.
'A Christmas Carol'
Experience the Charles Dickens classic tale in two ways. Through Dec. 23, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's version uses an original adaptation that sets the story in Baltimore's 1800s business district. ($19-$49; Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 S. Calvert St.) For a gracefully fluid telling, try the Charm City Ballet's original production ($17-$22; 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19) at the Baltimore Museum of Art (10 Art Museum Drive). chesapeakeshakespeare.com; charmcityballet.com.
Holly Jolly Trolley
See the city — and its residents' lights and decorations — in a different way this year with this tour of Baltimore's most festive neighborhoods, including a trip down Hampden's "Miracle on 34th Street," now in its 69th year. Picks up at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront (700 Aliceanna St.). $15.95 for kids 6-12, $27.95 for 13+. 6:30 p.m.-8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, through Jan. 3. baltimore.org.
George Handel's 1741 oratorio endures for many reasons, including the composition's powerful "Hallelujah chorus." Hear a rendition from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the concert artists of Baltimore Symphonic Chorale 7:30 p.m. tonight and 3 p.m. Sunday at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall ($22-$71; 1212 Cathedral St.; bsomusic.org). Other performances of Handel's "Messiah" include the United States Naval Academy Glee Club's ($21-$36; 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the USNA Main Chapel, 121 Blake Road, Annapolis; usna.edu), Handel Choir's ($10-$47; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12 at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St.; 3 p.m. Dec. 13 at Grace United Methodist Church, 5407 N. Charles St.; handelchoir.org) and Baltimore Choral Arts Society's Sing-Along Messiah ($25; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 18 at Kraushaar Auditorium, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson; baltimorechoralearts.org).
Support some Baltimore neighborhoods by shopping local. Tonight, from 6 p.m.-midnight., Ellicott City will hold its 37th "Midnight Madness," an opportunity to visit the area's unique shops while sipping cider and hearing carolers. On Dec. 11, from 7 p.m.-midnight, it's Federal Hill's turn with "Moonlight Madness," a night of discounts and specials. There's also free gift wrapping at Federal Hill Main Street (42 E. Cross St.). Free. visitellicottcity.com; historicfederalhill.org.
The holiday staple will be performed all around the state. First up: The Harford Dance Theatre Company at Harford Community College ($10-$16; 401 Thomas Run Road, Bel Air; 8 p.m. Friday; 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; harford.edu). Other performances of "The Nutcracker" include Ballet Chesapeake's ($17-$23; 6 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. Sunday at Patterson Mill High School, 85 Patterson Mill Road, Bel Air; balletchesapeake.org), Ballet Theatre of Maryland's ($13-$31; 7 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday at Bowie Center for Performing Arts, 15200 Annapolis Road, Bowie; balletmaryland.org), Baltimore School for the Arts' ($15-$20; 7 p.m. Dec. 11 and Dec. 18; 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Dec. 12; 1 p.m. Dec. 19 at 712 Cathedral St.; bsfa.org), Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts' ($27-$52; 7 p.m. Dec. 12 and Dec. 19; at 801 Chase St., Annapolis; marylandhall.org), Columbia Figure Skating Club's ($12-$13; 4:30 p.m., 6:15 p.m. and 8 p.m. Dec. 12; 4:30 p.m. and 6:15 p.m. Dec. 13 at Columbia Ice Rink, 5876 Thunder Hill Road, Columbia; columbiafsc.com) and Moscow Ballet's Great Russian Nutcracker ($46-$198.50; 7 p.m. Dec. 18; 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. 19 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St.; france-merrickpac.com).
Holiday Candlelight Stroll
It's easy to forget the origins of the many holiday customs we enjoy, so let this 90-minute walking tour around Annapolis serve as a reminder. This year's theme, "At Home with the Harwoods: An 1830's Maryland Christmas," should feel like stepping into a fun time machine. $12-20 with kids 2 and under free. 7-8:30 p.m through Dec. 19; begins at Information Booth at City Dock (1 Dock St., Annapolis). annapolistours.com.
Fells Point Olde Tyme Christmas and Parade of Lighted Boats
Starting 9 a.m. Saturday, the neighborhood will be abuzz all day and night thanks to colorful decorations, a holiday market, eggnog contest, the Reindeer Run Pub Crawl and more. Be sure to grab a good view of the water for the annual Parade of Lighted Boats, which starts at 6 p.m. fellspointmainstreet.org.
Holiday fun with B&O
The B&O Railroad Museum knows how to get into the holiday spirit. This month, things kick off with Frosty Fest Weekend (Saturday and Sunday) where kids can take train rides with Santa and Frosty the Snowman. Other scheduled themes at the museum include Winter Royal Adventures (Dec. 12-13), North Pole Adventures (Dec. 19-20) and Winterfest Wonderland (Dec. 21-Jan. 3). $12-$18. borail.org.
Highlandtown Train Garden
This free train garden, housed at Baltimore City Fire Department's Engine House No. 41, features nine platforms of a miniaturized world filled with recognizable local landmarks like the Patterson Park pagoda. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. through Jan. 3. 520 S. Conkling St. highlandtowntraingarden.blogspot.com.
Bel Air Christmas Celebration
Downtown Bel Air will feel festive on Sunday with a concert on Main Street, a parade and a tree lighting. Local high school marching bands, dancers and equestrian guests will also perform. Starts at 2:30 p.m. in front of the Harford County Courthouse (20 West Courtland St.). Free. belairmaryland.org.
A Family Chanukah Celebration with Joanie Leeds
Children's music singer and guitarist Joanie Leeds, along with her band the Nightlights, will perform a concert that costs only a dollar to see. 2 p.m. Sunday at the Jewish Museum of Maryland at the Herbert Bearman Campus in Baltimore (15 Lloyd St.). jewishmuseummd.org.
O'Donnell Square Lamp Post Lighting Ceremony
Head to Canton's nightlife hub on Tuesday for the neighborhood's Lamp Post Lighting Ceremony, now in its eighth year. There will also be live music from the Cleanse, hot cider and a raffle whose proceeds will benefit the Believe in Tomorrow Children's Foundation. 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. at O'Donnell Square (2917 O'Donnell St.). Free. smalltimoreevents.com.
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's 'Tis the Season concert
Hear timeless tunes like "Sleigh Ride" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" performed by Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell and the BSO SuperPops. 2 p.m. Wednesday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Dec.11-12; 3 p.m. Dec. 13 at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (1212 Cathedral St.), except for 2 p.m. Thursday at the Music Center at Strathmore (5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda). $25-$99. bsomusic.org.
Mannheim Steamroller Christmas
Who knew a revved-up, rock 'n' roll take on Christmas music would find millions of fans around the world? Mannheim Steamroller founder Chip Davis did. Davis and the group will perform against an eye-catching multimedia show 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric (140 W. Mount Royal Ave.). $49.50-$69.50. lyricoperahouse.com.
Holidays at Hampton
Take a tour through this early 1800s Towson mansion, where Jim Thomas will perform historic African-American spirituals and a park ranger will recount the story, "Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarter." Dec. 12-13 at the Hampton National Historic Site, 535 Hampton Lane, Towson. Free. nps.gov/hamp.
Jingle Fells bar crawl
Like St. Patrick's Day and Halloween, the holiday season lends itself to organized bar crawls in the city. On Dec. 12, from 1 p.m.-midnight, participants will hop around Fells Point for drink specials ($3 Miller Lite, $4 Blue Moon and Redds Apple Ale) at a number of participating bars. $10. Register at the Green Turtle (722 S. Broadway) between 1-6 p.m. lindypromo.com.
Walk-In Tour: The Christmas Story in Art
Tour the Walters Art Museum with a trained docent as Renaissance and Baroque paintings depicting the birth of Jesus Christ are displayed and discussed. As the title implies, no reservation required. Free. 1 p.m.-2 p.m. Dec. 13 and Dec. 20 at 600 N. Charles St. thewalters.org.
30th Annual Christmas Cookie Tour
Get to know Union Square better by walking through the neighborhood's National Register of Historic Places district and its distinctly styled homes, from classic to contemporary. Each house will have plenty of cookies to munch on, too, because … well, why not? It's the holidays. $18; $15 each for groups of four or more. Dec. 13, 1401 Hollins St. union-square.us.
Morgan State University Choir Christmas Concert
The renowned choir, led by conductor Eric Conway, joins the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for a night of holiday favorites. 7:30 p.m. Dec. 17-18 at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. $19-$57. bsomusic.org.
Trixie & Monkey's 11th Annual Holiday Spectac-u-thon
A variety show with heart and humor, this annual holiday celebration features burlesque performances, live music by the French horn trio Tres Horny and plenty of laughs. Expect appearances from characters with names like Moisty the Snowman and Lil Miss Lixx. 8 p.m. Dec. 17; 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Dec. 18-19 at Creative Alliance (3134 Eastern Ave.). $22-$28. creativealliance.org.
Snowflake Tour of Charles Village
Similar to Union Square's Cookie Tour, the 7th annual stroll around decorated Charles Village homes will help you appreciate the area's history. Tour is self-guided with a provided brochure. A ticket ($12-$15) includes free admission to Johns Hopkins University's Homewood Museum. Noon-4 p.m. Dec. 20. Starts at the Village Learning Place (2521 Saint Paul St.). snowflaketour.info.
'A John Waters Christmas: Holier & Dirtier'
The title says it all. The author and director nicknamed the Pope of Trash performs his annual one-man show — filled with musings on holiday traditions and horror stories — at Baltimore Soundstage on Dec. 23. Doors open at 6 p.m. $40 in advance; $45 day of show. baltimoresoundstage.com.
'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical'
Aiming to remind viewers of the original TV special, this faithful retelling features the classic songs and characters — in puppet-form — so many fell in love with decades ago. 1 p.m. and 5 p.m., Dec. 26-27 at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric. $29-$59. lyricoperahouse.com.
Annual Kwanzaa Celebration
Celebrate African fashion, music, dance and more at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. Other highlights include storytelling by Maria Broom and Jali D., craft activities and a candlelight Kwanzaa ceremony. 1 p.m.-6 p.m. Dec. 27, 830 E. Pratt St. $5. lewismuseum.org.