A December without Tiny Tim, the Snow Queen and a Yule Log would be like Scrooge's dream without Jacob Marley's cloak of clanking chains.

It just wouldn't be right.

The trio "” A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker and the Boar's Head and Yule Log Festival "” has become the warp and weft of Cincinnati's holiday tradition.

But just because they've been around for years (the Boar's Head for 600-plus and counting) doesn't mean each event cruises on automatic. There's no leaving-well-enough-alone about it.

To keep the Snow Queen and her gang fresh, Victoria Morgan, CEO and artistic director of Cincinnati Ballet, and her tippy-toe crew completely revamped The Nutcracker last year, inside out.

New choreography, costumes, three-dimensional sets "” eight tractor-trailer loads of magic "” onstage.

Up on the hill at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, home of A Christmas Carol, "we're always tweaking it.

If it gets too settled, it gets stale," says director Michael Evan Haney, part of the show since playing Bob Cratchit 22 years ago.

Even the Boar's Head and Yule Log Festival at downtown's Christ Church Cathedral, entrenched in traditions dating back to an English festival in 1607, gets an update now and then.

Malcolm Dunn, the plum pudding baker, eliminated cinnamon, nutmeg and spices in the recipe handed down to him 20 years ago, bravely substituting cardamom for its savory merits.

Boar's Head
Pig & Puddin'

The pageant with 250 participants is rooted in ancient times when the wild boar was the ferocious forest dweller whose demise was celebrated at pagan feasts. As Christianity took over, the staple of medieval banquets came to represent evil vanquished by the coming of the Christ Child.

Embellished with carols and accoutrements of mince pie, plum pudding and the Yule log, the cathedral's Boar's Head pageant remains authentic to the 14th century with the exception of the hog head, today's stand-in for the boar "” with wood tusk props that go back 73 years.

Roasting the head, donated by a local hog farmer, is a messy job. But John Miller, a self-described cradle Episcopalian who started out "as a sprite carrying a candle 44 years ago," takes it all in stride despite the "rather tedious" process and powerful smell that he combats with constant infusion and replacement of rosemary and lemon throughout the process. The initial draining, then cleaning, of the boar stand-in is neither pretty nor quick. It requires a vigorous scouring (he suggests a disposable brush) followed by the toughest part "” getting the mouth pried open for roasting without destroying the choppers so an apple can be popped in at the finish.

When it is "all shiny and pretty" according to Miller, it's coated with oil, the ears are propped or wired up, and the whole thing is covered with foil so the hairs don't burn. But "you can't just stick it in and walk away for four hours. You have to keep an eye on it. It's a huge symbol of the pageant and has to be done right," he says.

After cooling the 10- to 18-pounder, the lemon and rosemary are switched out and it's refrigerated until it is loaded on a trencher, a platform hoisted on the shoulders of participants, for a trip down the aisle. Fruits, holiday greens and three tiny flags (United States, France and Great Britain) are added along with the taxidermy eyes, a recent improvement over the cream cheese and maraschino peepers of the past.

Unlike the plum pudding and mince pies that are shared by the cast after the final performance, the "boar's" head is not eaten, just unceremoniously hauled away "with special arrangements by Rumpke."

The plum pudding is neither plum nor pudding, says pudding baker Malcolm Dunn. It's more like a fruitcake saturated in brandy.

The first weekend of October he gives his Kitchen Aid mixer a workout, blending four pounds of candied fruits, one pound of blond raisins, one pound of currants (soaked overnight in brandy and sherry) with two dozen eggs, two pounds of English walnuts, a cup of sherry, two pounds of unsalted butter and 9 to 10 cups of flour. He pours it in a roasting pan, adds his secret ingredient "” cardamom "” and pours it in a massive pan about 20 inches across. After about three hours in the oven, it's cooled, covered with cheesecloth and stowed away for about six weeks. The ends of the cheesecloth are constantly submerged in brandy for steady transfusion.

The morning of the pageant, Dunn heats a jar of marmalade, runs it thru a sieve and glazes the 20-pound pudding. He adds the red and green candied cherries, pineapple slices, blanched almond garnishes and holiday greens.

"I wouldn't really call it a gourmet project," laughs Dunn. "Think of it as more of a prop. A prop you can eat."

Christmas Carol
Sounds of the Night

The sound of Scrooge's insomnia in A Christmas Carol is an unseen character of the annual event "” doors slamming, chains clanging, spirits wailing and the wind whispering its warnings.

Easy to imagine folks backstage rattling heavy links of metal, groaning on cue and slamming trap doors night after night.

That would be wrong.

"At one point we do have someone shaking a bell like an old-fashioned door clapper," says Haney. "But 99 percent is computer generated."

The sounds of Scrooge are mastered by David Smith of Real Time Music Solutions Production Co. in New York City.

"It's become one of the favorite shows I've designed because the sound and music become another player, part of the cast," says the CCM alum who started as a classical violinist and composer wannabe whose road veered off to sound manipulation when he was introduced to a moog synthesizer. His transformative compositions "turn sound on its head by creating complicated soundscapes that play with the edge of what's real and what's synthetic to affect the mood of the audience."

Scrooge's dreamscape was a playground for him as he twisted and turned classical pieces, layering in bells, gongs and human voices to create the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come:

For Christmas past he turned to Mozart because the 1790s time period. "I did a lot of manipulation and added bells and voices to be evocative of a strange time and place." Listen for tinkly bells and smoky feeling through a line of vocal textures and choral humming, oooohing and aaaahing.

"The Mozart is mostly unrecognizable as it's backwards and upside down," he says.

Christmas Present takes place about 40 years later, 1830s in a romantic period. "The visitor is a happy kind of jovial guy so I used fanfare music and its brassy percussion, trumpet flourishes, more orchestral sounds. And we do some strange things when he departs. It's very intense, dramatic and dissonant."

Christmas Yet to Come is most ominous with a lot of low drums and moans. "To get to the future, things will be traveling backwards so samples are turned around and it's very bizarre ... the sound blasts you in the face like a modem dialing trying to connect," he says. "Future never says anything. He just points, so when he acts, we have this big percussive attack of future sounds coming back to slam Scrooge in the face."

The Nutcracker
En Pointe

Last year's makeover of The Nutcracker by the Cincinnati Ballet raked in kudos for the three-dimensional set designs, the twist on characters, the challenging choreography, surprises and jokes, the tiara inspired by the Great American Tower crown (they sold souvenir versions at the shows) and the color-shot, sumptuous costumes.

It's all set for an encore this year with a few changes, including the title "Frisch's Presents the Nutcracker," and a more traditional take on the Christmas tree. But in all the fuss and bother, the one thing common to all performers often gets overlooked "” the dancing shoe.

After all, it would be a pretty flat-footed and earth-bound affair without toe shoes and ballet slippers.

Sarah Hairston, Cincinnati Ballet principal dancer, also rules the closet as "shoe queen," ordering and storing the dance shoes for the ballet, to the tune of $80,000-$90,000 every year.

Principal dancers can "go through 90-100 pair a year because you are doing harder things. A corps dancer need maybe 60 or so," she says. "When I dance a ballet, I may wear one pair in Act I and a new pair in Act II. The lights make the shoes hot, your feet sweat and it starts to break down the shoe," often made of satin, glue, cardstock or layers of glue-hardened burlap.

Since every dancer's feet are different with variation in toe length, shape and arch flexibility, ordering them is anything but easy.

"You, as a professional, have to decode what shoe fits you best," she says. Dancers don't just order up a shoe size. "You start with a stock shoe and find things you want to change" "” a shorter insole, a wider or narrower heel, a lower side. The shoe order then carries the dancer's initials noting the customizations.

Most pointe and ballet flats, come in pink, black and white, not always in keeping with the aesthetics of a ballet's design, especially one with a rainbow of lush costumes like Nutcracker.

That's where wardrobe mistress Diana Adams enters. The 41-year needle-and-thread veteran of the ballet and opera is also charged with coordinating shoes. The shoes come to her shop located just outside the vast stone underground caverns, once part of a distillery.Here, she and Laura Hofmann, the assistant wardrobe mistress who happens to be her daughter, consult a book of paint "chips" from International Professional Fabric Shoe Dye and mix the components much like the paint guy at the local hardware store.

"You have to be a little bit of a chemist," she says, "but we've been doing it for so long we do it almost by instinct now." Inevitably, the children in the cast lose a shoe here and there and "we end up doing more."