It’s not sleigh bells ballet lovers hear this time of year: It’s the twinkly celesta of Peter Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”
How could a story about a young girl who visits a fantasy realm of dancing characters become the most popular ballet of our era and a staple of the holiday season?
Let us count just a few of the ways Houston Ballet’s sumptuous version keeps audiences coming: 18 Snowflakes, 12 mischievous mice, 10 rowdy Party Children, eight galloping Toy Soldiers, eight Clowns, three cheerful Mirlitons, one sweet Sugar Plum Fairy (along with a sparkly Snow Queen, a dashing Prince, a handsome Nutcracker, a devilish Rat King and that high-flying Gopak guy) ... and a 40-foot tree that grows magically out of a trunk.
We get breathless just thinking about it all.
Houston Ballet first performed “The Nutcracker” 40 years ago in a staging by Frederic Franklin. Ben Stevenson’s fun, humanistic version has been the staple since 1976, and the current production — designed by Desmond Heeley with lighting by Duane Schuler — has swept wide-eyed children off their feet since 1987.
The company gives 37 performances this year. All eyes will be on retiring principal dancer Amy Fote, who will take her final bow as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Many casts rotate in the leads.
When: Opens 7:30 p.m. Friday. Through Dec. 30
Where: Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas
Tickets: $25-$110 at 713-227-2787 or www.houstonballet.org 
Several small regional ballet companies and schools perform “The Nutcracker,” often with guest stars in the leading roles:
Bay Area Houston Ballet & Theatre
Nov. 30-Dec. 9, UH-Clear Lake Bayou Theatre, 2700 Bay Area Blvd.; 281-480-1617.
Houston Repertoire Ballet
Dec. 8-9, Tomball High School Auditorium, 30330 Quinn Rd., Tomball; 281-940-4721 or www.hrbdance.org .
Dec. 22, Lake Jackson Intermediate Forum Theater, 100 Oyster Creek Dr, Lake Jackson; 832-592-7360; www.festivalballethouston.org .
Claire School of Dance
Dec. 16 at St. John’s School, 2401 Claremont; 713-880-5565.
More guides for holiday fun :