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DECEMBER

26 FRIDAY

Christmas may be over, but there are still five more chances to see the Joffrey Ballet's acclaimed Nutcracker. Choreographed in 1987 by the company's late founder, Robert Joffrey, this version of the holiday chestnut is set in Victorian America, rather than the Old World, but retains its classic trappings, including frolicking mice, dancing sweets, and the sublime Tchaikovsky score. Performances this weekend are at 2 and 7:30 tonight and tomorrow, and at 2 only on Sunday at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress in Chicago. Tickets range from $13 to $53; call Ticketmaster at 312-902-1500 or go to www.joffrey.com.

This year donations from friends and supporters helped Chicago's HotHouse make back almost half of the estimated $80,000 it lost while it was shut down by the city for three weeks in May for improper licensing. Tonight at 9 PM, at the nonprofit venue's second annual Customer Appreciation Night, executive director Marguerite Horberg and her staff will say thanks with a free Latin dance party featuring members of Victor and Connie Parra's Mambo Express and the Willie Gomez Con Cache Orquesta. Attendees are asked to donate canned food for Pilsen's Gadshill Center and Humboldt Park's San Lucas Church. HotHouse is at 31 E. Balbo in Chicago; call 312-362-9707 for more.

27 SATURDAY

"With the West Nile virus in the last couple of years, the numbers are way down," says longtime birder Ralph Herbst of the Evanston North Shore Bird Club's annual Christmas Bird Count, part of a larger national survey that's been conducted by the Audubon Society since the turn of the last century. Last year between 50 and 100 volunteers showed up to tally birds; the results showed that the local crow population had dropped a dramatic 90 percent--from 3,000 to 300 birds. Today's will cover the North Shore from Evanston to north Lake Forest and west to Palwaukee Airport. It starts at various times at various locations between sunup and sundown and concludes with a reception in Evanston. No previous birding experience is required; an optional $5 donation to the Audubon Society gets your name in the published results. For details or to register call 708-867-6660. See www.ensbc.org for information on other counts, including the less chilly option of monitoring a bird feeder in your backyard for a day.

Carriage rides, ice sculpture, storytelling, shopping, light displays, and decorated wreaths and trees augment the usual flora and fauna at the Botanic Garden's family-oriented Celebrations! A Festival of Flowers, Lights, and Music, which started November 28. The annual event also includes a nightly indoor concert; tonight the a capella group Cantate sings holiday music at 7 and 8 PM. The festival runs from 5 to 9 PM Thursday through Sunday through January 4 at the Chicago Botanic Garden, 1000 Lake Cook in Glencoe. Admission is $7 for adults and $5 for children under 13; parking is $8.75. For more call 847-835-5440 or see www.chicagobotanic.org/celebrations.

28 SUNDAY

With local radio stations WLIT and WNND spinning Christmas tunes as early as November--and WLIT is still at it--most holiday music lost whatever luster it had weeks ago. But you can bet baroque holiday classics such as Tartini's Sonata Pastorale and Biber's Christmas Sonatas weren't on their playlists. They'll be performed today, along with noels and Christmas concertos from the same era by violinist Rachel Barton and cellist and Chicago Baroque Ensemble artistic director John Mark Rozendaal. The free concert is the final installment in the Chicago Cultural Center's Holiday Celebrations 2003 series; it starts at 3 PM. The Cultural Center is at 78 E. Washington in Chicago. Call 312-744-6630 for more.

29 MONDAY

Harmonica player Eomot O. RaSun was born Ezra Lee Blakely Jr. in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1945 and moved with his family to Chicago's south side when he was five. In 1973 he began studying African history and legally changed his name (Eomot means "the child comes home unto himself"; RaSun refers to the Egyptian sun god). A fan of harp legend Little Walter, RaSun claims he'd wanted to play since he was a kid, but he didn't hit the local blues circuit until the 1980s. He'll play today at noon at the Chicago Tourism Center as part of a free concert series held in conjunction with the "Chicago Blues Exchange" exhibit. (At noon on Wednesday, December 31, the series hosts Katherine Davis and Erwin Helfer.) The center is at 72 E. Randolph in Chicago and is open today from 10 to 6; "Chicago Blues Exchange," which traces the history of the blues in Chicago, runs through February 29. Call 312-744-6630 for more information.

30 TUESDAY

"Having cancer gave me membership in an elite club to which I would rather not belong," comedian Gilda Radner famously said before she died of the disease in 1989. Her therapist, Joanna Bull, and husband, Gene Wilder, founded the first Gilda's Club in New York City in 1995, so that no one would have to face cancer alone; almost 3,000 members have been served by Gilda's Club Chicago since it opened its red door on Valentine's Day 1998. Those affected by the disease can learn about the club's free services--which range from teen support groups to yoga classes--and tailor a program to fit their needs at its frequent new member meetings. There's one today from 10 to 11 AM at the club, 537 N. Wells in Chicago. Call 312-464-9900 or see www.gildasclubchicago.org for details.

31 WEDNESDAY

The 82-year-old Willowbrook Ballroom in Willow Springs is one of just a handful of such vintage ballrooms remaining in the U.S. "One of the reasons it's survived is that there's adequate parking," says a spokesperson. "Everyone used to take streetcars to the ballrooms in the city" in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, but "parking became a nightmare when everyone got cars." City ballrooms, like the Aragon in Chicago, found new uses, but the Willowbrook--whose sprung maple floors are designed to have a lot of "give"--still offers dancing most evenings, including tonight at its 65th annual New Year's Eve party. For $90 guests get a surf 'n' turf dinner, party favors, a midnight champagne toast, and dancing to the sounds of the Teddy Lee Orchestra; dining starts at 7 PM. If you only want to dance, you can show up at the main ballroom anytime after 9; tickets are $30 in advance, $35 at the door. The dress is "formal or dressy." The ballroom is at 8900 S. Archer in Willow Springs; for reservations call 708-839-1000 or go to www.willowbrookballroom.com.

JANUARY

1 THURSDAY

The 19th annual New Year's Lakefront Fun Run & Walk starts at the civilized hour of 11 AM and is expected to draw about 1,000 participants. The 5K race starts at Stockton and LaSalle and will be followed by a reception at the Tequila Roadhouse, 1653 N. Wells. Registration is $20 in advance, $25 on site, and a portion of the proceeds benefits the Lakeview Citizens' Council. For more call 773-868-3010 or see www.chicagoevents.com.

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