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Las Vegas Valley makes Yuletide merry its own way

So you’re a sucker for Christmas and all of those classic images inspired by Norman Rockwell and Currier &Ives.

You know, that whole “snow falling gently over a wooded path as a sleigh filled with rosy-cheeked carolers sing to delighted passers-by while kids frolic in a snowbank” sort of thing.

But here’s the problem: We live in Las Vegas, and although touches of that traditional, New Englandish sort of Christmas still can be found by traveling up to Mount Charleston this winter, catching that classic vibe in the valley can be tough.

No snow, at least not all that often. No naturally occurring evergreens in our yards to decorate. No carolers earning pin money by strolling from house to house singing classic holiday songs.

OK, so maybe we don’t do traditional particularly well at Christmas. But what Southern Nevadans are good at is finding ways to transform old traditions into new, often better, ones, and that’s true at Christmas, too.

Take, for instance, that classic Christmas dinner. In most cities, dining-out options for those who are unable or disinclined to cook are nonexistent on Christmas when even fast-food places shut down for the day.

But not in Las Vegas, where anything from a quick burger to a full Christmas feast can be found at just about any casino and many free-standing restaurants around town.

The demand for out-of-home dinners on Christmas certainly exists. John Arena, co-owner of Metro Pizza, says his restaurants aren’t open on Christmas Day, but “we come in (on Christmas) and prep for the next day, and I know from being in the restaurant that the phone rings off the hook all day.”

The day after Christmas “is always busy for us,” he adds. “We run some specials for people who are returning gifts, and it’s generally a very busy day, right through the whole week, actually, through New Year’s.”

Even fans of Chinese restaurants, that longtime fallback option for Christmas Day dinner — see the film “A Christmas Story” — have more options to choose from in the valley than they do in most other cities.

“I grew up in New York, and traditionally the Chinese restaurants were open on Christmas day,” Arena says.

Particularly with the development of Chinatown Plaza, “we have amazing Asian restaurants here,” Arena says, “and I can guarantee you the bulk of them are going to be open.”

Arena suspects that having so many dining options available has altered more than a few families’ longtime Christmas dinner traditions. And that, he says, has given restaurateurs a chance to become a part of those new family traditions.

“People come here to kind of reinvent themselves and reinvent their lives, and you have an opportunity, especially restaurants that have been here a long time, to become part of the fabric of a new series of traditions,” Arena says.

Another Christmas tradition is decorating Christmas trees. Although many Las Vegans still follow that tradition by buying and decorating a cut evergreen for indoors, our relative lack of evergreens in homeowners’ yards eliminates a key element of that classic Rockwell/Currier &Ives Christmas decor.

But that’s no problem for adaptable Las Vegans, who have learned to give their water-smart landscapes the Full Traditional by stringing lights on their cactuses and desert shrubs. Steve Bowdoin, curator — and, during the Christmas holidays, chief decorator — of Ethel M Chocolates’ Botanical Cactus Garden, has noticed more and more families around town donning their cactuses in gay apparel in recent years.

“I do see that more now than I did, say, 10 years ago, people stringing cactuses in their yards,” he says.

It makes sense, given that cactuses are “our canvas,” Bowdoin adds. “If you live in the Midwest or the East, you’ve got fabulous Norfolk pines to decorate with, but we don’t have that, so we do what we can do.”

And how well do Southern Nevadans’ evergreen-decorating skills translate to Southwest succulents? “Oh, they do it well,” Bowdoin says.

“The one thing about decorating a cactus is that you’re left to your own discretion on how to get (lights) on there,” he says. That means figuring out a way to secure strings of lights to a cactus without damaging the plant and, of course, without getting stuck.

“The cholla is not one of my preferred plants to decorate,” Bowdoin says. “They’re so fragile. You’ve got to be careful wrapping them.”

The cholla also is “the most painful to try to decorate,” he adds. “I don’t like to deal with it because it is so sharp, the barbs on there, and they hurt going in and then they open up and pull coming out.”

This season marks Bowdoin’s seventh of decking specimens in the Ethel M cactus garden in Christmas finery, and “every year we learn from what we’ve done before.”

“Most of the time when you’re decorating a Christmas tree at home, there’s a format that you go by,” Bowdoin says. “Most everybody puts their lights on first, then ornaments, then they put their garland on. That’s like an age-old tradition. With cactus, you’re not real sure what’s going to happen.”

Lighted cactuses may never have crossed Rockwell’s mind when he was creating his iconic Christmas scenes. But, Bowdoin says, “I think Norman Rockwell would have had a real fun time here. With his characters and his imagination, he could really have had a fun time making Christmas in the desert as interesting and as nostalgic as Christmas back East.”

Choirs and carolers are another element of a classic Christmas. Just as in many other places, there’s no lack of venues — from shopping malls to churches to school auditoriums — at which to catch a few good holiday tunes.

But, in Las Vegas, the roster of possibilities includes lounges, holiday shows performed at hotels and casinos, and The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, Mark Wherry says.

In Las Vegas, revelers can get all sorts of holiday shows they wouldn’t get anywhere else, says Wherry, director of vocal music and a music professor at the College of Southern Nevada.

For more intimate samplings of holiday music, “I would venture to say any church that has a choir” will be offering a music program or more traditional songs this time of year,” Wherry says. “I’m choir director at Mountain View Presbyterian Church in Sun City, and we do a cantata every year. This year it will be (today), and it’s all family carols.”

However, it does appear that the traditionalists have one up on us, because carolers strolling from house to house are difficult, if not impossible, to find in Southern Nevada. Wherry says Las Vegas music lovers have to seek out carolers — at malls and churches’ live Nativity pageants, for example — rather than having carolers come to them.

“It’s almost like you have to find them before they find you,” he says. “The high school choir is not going to come to your door like they used to and sing songs.”

Finally, Christmas traditionalists who make it a point to take a glance into the nighttime Christmas sky in search of, perhaps, a particular star will find their viewing better than it is in many metropolises back East.

Granted, Las Vegans still might have to drive out of town a bit to find a suitably dark sky. But, says Dale Etheridge, the trip will be shorter than it would be in other cities.

“If you’re in the middle of L.A., the sky is going to be as bright as it is for Las Vegas, but in L.A. you’ve got to drive three or four hours,” says Etheridge, director of the College of Southern Nevada’s planetarium.

And even if you don’t find the star you’re seeking at the end of your trip, Venus and Jupiter still will provide a fine show this time of year.

“We keep getting calls, ‘What is that bright star out in the Western sky?’ And, of course, it’s not a star, it’s the planet Venus,” Etheridge says.

Meanwhile, he says, “rising in the East in the midevening is the planet Jupiter, which is almost as bright. So you get one in the West and one in the East. Venus settles in the West, Jupiter rises in the East.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

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