Baltimore's Union Square Christmas Cookie Tour is often less about cookies than it is about the houses that open their doors to serve them.
"These are Victorian houses, and they are almost always under construction or restoration," said Sylva Lin. "Everybody loves to come in and see the progress. And you get all sorts of advice. People will ask why you haven't finished the basement yet."
Chris Taylor, whose wife, Megan, will make about 500 cookies for visitors, said repeat visitors are the real heart of the event.
"This tour has been going on for 25 years, and people come back again and again," said Taylor. "The same sweet little ladies who want to see what you've done with the place."
Another reason the Christmas Cookie Tour isn't always about cookies? Some homeowners serve soup.
"One of our houses is owned by a chef at Bonefish, and he served the most amazing corn chowder," said Cari Schemm. "And one served apple dumplings with real bourbon sauce. And another one of our homeowners said, 'I don't bake but I will serve you a great drink.'"
While the Cookie Tour is a seasonal fixture, the residents over in Charles Village are just gearing up. This is only the second year for the Snowflake Village Tour. It was snowed out in 2009.
"That year, we lived up to our name," said Ron Tanner, whose St. Paul Street house is on the tour.
Last year, the neighborhood association printed 50 maps, but the tour drew more than 100 visitors.
"This is about Charles Village stepping out," said Tanner, who added that most of the homes are decorated to reflect the time period in which they were built — from the1870s to the 1920s — with lots of evergreens and Victorian ornaments.
The tour will include more than a dozen houses and ends at the Homewood Museum on the Johns Hopkins University campus, which will be decorated for the holidays, too.
It is just the second year for Yitz and Sora Fleischman , too, but they are celebrating a different seasonal holiday — Hanukkah.
The Greenspring Avenue family took over The Chanukah House tradition from Morris and Ann Cohen, who retired to Florida after decorating the living daylights out of their Park Heights Avenue home for 18 years.
"My wife loved their Hanukkah Barbie, and when she heard they were retiring and selling their decorations, all she wanted was the Hanukkah Barbie," said Fleischman.
"I went to see the Cohens and when I came home, I said, 'I have good news, and bad news. The good news is, I bought the Hanukkah Barbie. The bad news is, I bought everything else, too.'"
It took Fleischman two trips with a 14-foot rental truck to bring the decorations home — hundreds of pieces, including a Hanukkah Harry Potter.
The exterior of the house will be decorated and lit during the eight nights of Hanukkah, and visitors are invited to park nearby and walk up and "talk" to the Hanukkah rebbe. (A video camera and a microphone from inside the house makes it possible.)
The people who operate bed-and-breakfasts must always have their best food forward for guests — and decorating for the holidays is a given. So the Better Baltimore Bed and Breakfast Holiday House Tour has added something extra: A chef from one of Baltimore's restaurants will prepare something special to eat and pair a wine with it at each inn.
"Last year was our first year, and we had 75 people," said Warren Munroe of Inn 2920 in Canton. "We're hoping to double that this year. This is the tour for people who really like food and Baltimore neighborhoods."
The $40 ticket includes coach transportation to five B&Bs in Fells Point, Butchers Hill, Federal Hill, Canton and Ridgely's Delight, plus the food and wine.
"I love Christmas. It is one of my favorite holidays," said Munroe, who will have a chef from Jack's Bistro preparing mac and cheese with chocolate.
While Chanukah House might turn the lights off at 2 a.m. in a nod to the economy, the residents of Hampden's 34th Street — renamed Christmas Street during this time of the year — aren't looking for any financial help. They warn visitors that there are people posing as residents and soliciting for money to pay "electric bills."
"They are NOT residents of the street and in no way are we asking for any donations," organizers said in an open letter to homeowners.
The street has been lit up like, well, a Christmas tree every holiday season for more than 60 years.
"Putting up these lights is truly a labor of love and we do not receive any cash donations and BGE does not gives us a break on our electric bills, we pay ours just like you," said the letter.
Area house tours charging admission plan to return the proceeds to the community. The bed-and-breakfast tour will donate the proceeds to Moveable Feast, which provides free meals to those suffering from AIDs or other life-threatening illnesses.
The Charles Village Snowflake Tour donates to the Village Learning Place. And the Union Square Cookie Tour uses the money from the tour to make donations to charities and to provide seed money for other neighborhoods trying to organize events.
"It is a great way to show off the beautiful houses we have," said Chris Taylor. "And to show what a vibrant community we have."
Said Cari Schemm, "We promise that all the cookies on the tour are made by someone in Union Square. We have volunteers baking for people who don't bake."
But after four years, she and husband Paul are taking this holiday season off.
"We are missing out on seeing all the houses!"
A Nov. 27 story about holiday home tours incorrectly attributed a quote to Yitz Fleischman, owner of the Chanukah House. Fleischman did not compare a "talking" Hanukkah rebbe to talking to Santa. The Sun regrets the error.
If you go
Better Baltimore Bed and Breakfast Holiday Tour, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2 to 7 p.m., Tour starts at Baltimore Visitors Center. Tickets: $40 in advance, $50 at the door. Go to betterbaltimorebedandbreakfasts.com/tour.html
Union Square Christmas Cookie Tour, Sunday, Dec. 12, noon to 5 p.m. Tour starts at 1401 Hollins Street. Tickets: $15. Go to union-square.us/cookietour.html
Snowflake Tour of Charles Village Homes, Sunday, Dec. 18, noon to 4 p.m. Tour starts at the Village Learning Place, 2521 St. Paul St. Tickets: $15, $12 for students and seniors. Go to snowflaketour.info
The Chanukah House, 6721 Greenspring Ave., Dec. 20-28. Free. Donations accepted. Go to thechanukahhouse.com
Christmas Street, 34th Street in Hampden. Free. Go to christmasstreet.com
Other holiday tours
Fort McHenry Yuletide Candlelight Tours, Dec. 3, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Free 45-minute tour. Discover how Yuletide celebrations changed over time, from the War of 1812 to World War II, and get a rare glimpse of Fort McHenry at night. Go to nps.gov/fomc/index.htm
William Paca House "Christmas Eves-dropping." Annapolis, Dec. 2, 6 to 9 p.m. Free. (Timed tickets. Last tour starts at 8 p.m.) It is 1772 and Mr. and Mrs. Paca are throwing a holiday party. Visitors get to be the "fly on the wall" and eavesdrop unseen on the conversations and activities of the Pacas' household. The event is part of the Historic Annapolis Holiday Open House and the party continues at the Hogshead, 43 Pinkney St., where costumed interpreters will share the holiday traditions of the region's 18th-century working class. Go to annapolis.org
Holiday Tours at Historic Waverly Mansion, Marriottsville, Dec. 4-5. Tickets: $2 to $5. Tour the mansion, which is decorated for the holidays by The Howard County Council of Garden Clubs, and enjoy music of the Die Liedersanger Madrigal Singers. Each club also has a table in the heated tent behind the Mansion, where they sell hand made holiday crafts, fresh greens, wreaths and other decorations.
Chestertown Holiday House Tour, Chestertown, Dec. 10, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets: $15. Tour notable private residences and public buildings. Tour begins at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 101. N. Cross St., Go to holidayhousetour.org.