I’m not one for making holiday plans too early. I cringe at Halloween displays in stores on Labor Day, and abhor hearing ho-ho-ho’s anytime before Thanksgiving.
But there are a few winter holiday activities that do need to be thought about in early fall, since they can sell out well before the holidays actually arrive.
Here are three suggestions for diverse East Bay entertainments that might be of interest this December, but need to be scheduled soon: a ride on a vintage train, glowing with holiday lights; a musical dinner at UC Berkeley’s Faculty Club; and the Oakland version of the Christmas Revels.
First, the train. Down in southern Alameda County the historic Niles Canyon Railroad runs through the ravine of the same name. At Christmas the vintage railway cars and engines are draped and festooned, inside and out, with elaborate arrangements of colored lights and festive garlands to form the “Train of Lights.”
Evening excursionists ride the sparkling train through the Canyon from Sunol to Niles and back, about a 70-minute round trip. On most of the after-dark rides Santa comes along, and hot beverages, juice, and snacks are available for purchase.
Last year the holiday rides cost $20 for reserved seating in the enclosed cars, or $15 for outside seats. This year’s fares have not yet been posted.
The railroad volunteers are enthusiastic and cheery, and have accomplished a prodigious amount of work. They keep an entire railroad and its rolling stock in good condition with only volunteer labor, donations, and the proceeds from fundraisers such as the Train of Lights.
I’ve only been on the daytime train ride. It was well populated with families with young children, and my guess is that the holiday trains have a similar demographic.
You board and disembark from the train in Sunol, about an hour’s drive from Berkeley. There’s trackside parking at the station, which includes a small train-themed gift shop in the historic wooden depot.
This is a fun ride, but it’s not a luxury excursion. The trains jounce and rumble a bit along the tracks. The vintage passenger cars have simple padded seats, while the outdoor riding is on benches built on converted flatcars, roofed over, but with open sides. It can probably get chilly.
The Train of Lights runs on 19 dates this year, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, from Nov. 23 to Dec. 23. Each day there’s a 4:30 and a 7 p.m. train. Tickets apparently sell out very quickly.
The website currently says “Tickets go on sale in October” so keep checking there for a more specific date.
The route runs through a deep cleft, the outlet to the Bay for Alameda Creek, the East Bay’s biggest natural fresh watercourse.
Railroad tracks from San Jose were first laid into this steep-sided ravine by 1866, and in 1869 Niles Canyon became the route by which the Transcontinental Railroad threaded through the last barrier of hills and came down to the Pacific tidewater.
You won’t see much of the winter canyon landscape of steep, green, hillsides and riparian woodland on the night time trips, but if you enjoy the Train of Lights, you can always come back on a spring or summer weekend for a daytime ride.
Next, the campus party.
One of the oldest organized holiday events in Berkeley is the Faculty Club Christmas Party on the UC campus. It’s been more than a century since Cal professors first started festively decking their rustic hall designed by Bernard Maybeck.
This is a popular event, selling out three evenings a year. It’s a private party, members and guests only, but if you know a member of the Faculty Club, you can ask them to invite you. Members aren’t only professors; many are non-academic staff, or alumni.
The evening starts with light food and drinks in the lounges, and proceeds to a lavish meal served by waiters in the redwood-timbered Great Hall. Adjacent rooms with views into the Hall are opened up for additional diners. A tiny stage and risers, next to a small and capable band, accommodate volunteer entertainers.
First come the Monks, a venerable group of male club members and friends led for decades by “Prior” Milton Williams. They gather to sing an array of traditional numbers, including a “Boar’s Head’ carol partially in Latin, sung as a mock boar’s head is borne through the banqueting hall.
The Monks also finish off the evening with a rafter raising Hallelujah Chorus, and members of the audience are invited to come up and join in; many do, to the musical enrichment of the evening. There’s also a bit of Cal singing, including “Hail to California” and the subtly sarcastic “Faculty Hymn”.
The centerpiece of the evening is a light skit, written and performed by club members. Snippets of song, often from popular musicals, acquire new lyrics to parody the past year on campus. A wall-mounted moose head may come to life and join in the dialogue.
Foibles of faculty, Regents, administrators as well as sundry politicians are all fair game. The generally good-natured but also wickedly witty jibes also lament such evergreen academic preoccupations as low salaries, campus bureaucracy, and rifts between those in the humanities and hard sciences. Some true eminences, including one retired chancellor, have taken parts as volunteer performers.
Invitations are mailed to members in October and tickets are sought after and snapped up quickly. For this event the club only accepts reservations in writing; there are no on-line or telephone sign-ups.
Again, there’s no general public admission to this event; you have to be the guest of a club member. But ask around, you may well know one. Also keep in mind that this is a Christmas party with plenty of singing of traditional carols with religious content, although attendees of all faiths or none are welcome.
Each year I’ve attended I’ve met people, from on-campus and off, who are there for the first time and are delighted to take part. Many others have been coming for decades.
Third, the Christmas Revels.
Scattered around the country are various Revels programs, part of an organization founded in 1971. Oakland fortunately has a vigorous December performance series, produced by California Revels.
What’s a Christmas Revel? The program describes it as “a joyous production welcoming the return of the light back from the darkness of winter.” Oakland’s event takes place in the ornate Scottish Rite Theater, atop the Scottish Rite (Masonic) Temple on Lake Merritt.
Each year the Christmas Revels highlight a different holiday cultural tradition. Mid-winter and solstice holiday songs, dances, stories and rituals from that culture are assembled and performed by an appropriately costumed cast mixing professional entertainers with talented local amateurs, recruited in annual auditions.
Last year the setting was rustic, rural, French-Canada. Other Revels have traveled in theme to Ireland during the great immigration to America, Appalachia, the Italian Renaissance, Russia, Celtic Scotland, the Elizabethan and Middle Ages, and even Meso-America.
This year the program theme “follows a 19th century ‘Songcatcher’ as he wanders the English countryside, seeking to collect the songs, dances and village traditions that mark the turning of the year.”
Included are “mumming and Morris dancing, Christmas carols and some of their pub room predecessors, as well as English Country Dancing, children’s street games, storytelling and more” including a haunting Stag Horn Dance that’s a Christmas Revels tradition.
There are dozens of short songs and performances in each program ranging from sweet solos to energetic mass dances and choruses. At intermission, the cast takes a break while the audience is invited to join in dancing and song through the theater aisles (you can also just watch, not participate).
The setting itself is a treat, a glorious though worn, oval and oracular, auditorium with high tiers of seating that looks part opera house and part Harry Potter set.
I’ve only been once, but friends and family members are regulars and swear by it. I’m not sure that all the performances sell out, but certainly many of the better seats get taken early, so you should look into getting tickets when they go on sale to the general public Oct. 15.
TRAIN OF LIGHTS
For details and ticket information, go to www.ncry.org/home.htm and click on the Santa figure and Train of Lights icon on the right. Tickets go on sale on-line in October.
If you haven’t been on the Niles Canyon Railroad before, sure to read the “Frequently Asked Questions” at the bottom of the Train of Lights page.
The journey starts and ends in Sunol, about an hour’s drive from Berkeley.
The only way to attend is as a member or a guest of a member. Ask around amongst your friends. Tickets last year were $60 per person. The Club newsletter notes that invitations will be “mailed mid-October.” The party is repeated on three consecutive evenings, Wednesday through Friday, Dec. 5, 6, 7.
The Christmas Revels stages ten performances, Dec. 7-9, and Dec. 14-16. There are six evening, and four early afternoon shows. All performances are in the Scottish Rite Theater next to Lake Merritt in Oakland. Tickets for the general public go on sale Oct. 15. For further information, see www.calrevels.org.
Photograph by Steven Finacom.
The Monks perform beneath a benevolent and animate moose head in the redwood Great Hall during last year’s Faculty Club Christmas Party.