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NORTH OF THE BORDER

Party lights
What would the season in Toronto be like without the trees lined with traditional tiny white lights? The classiest displays are on Bloor Street between Yonge Street and Avenue Road and north on University Avenue. For pure holiday schmaltz, try the Cavalcade of Lights at Nathan Phillips Square.

Visitors will find interesting extras offered by many hotels if they stay during Christmas. Packages for the New Year's are also alluring, but it's a must to have reservations in Toronto for this period. For last-minute help with organizing a holiday trip to Toronto, two programs come to the rescue. Tourism Toronto offers Toronto Value Packages (call 800-363-1990), and the "Wrap Festival" provides accommodation packages (call 800-499-2514).

Parents visiting with children between 6 and 9 years old may be interested in the Winter Break Camp offered by Metro Toronto Zoo on Monday, Tuesday and Dec. 29, 30, 31 and Jan. 2. It's seven hours of supervised fun for $40. Call (416) 392-5947.

The New Year's bash
The traditional yearly offerings predominate on the Toronto New Year's circuit this year. The Gibson House in North York leads into the season, once again giving the culturally curious a taste of Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year, Saturday and next Sunday. Call (416) 395-7432.

For those on budgets Dec. 31, the celebration at Nathan Phillips Square is a free, non-alcoholic family event from 9 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. sponsored by Citytv. There's live music all evening. Call (416) 392-0458. In North York, a similar free event rolls out at Mel Lastman Square from 9 p.m. to midnight. Three bands play alternative music geared to the under-20 crowd, and the evening ends with a "pyro-blast" at midnight. Call (416) 395-7350.

The seventh annual Toronto First Night, Dec. 31, showcasing entertainment for all ages by 300 artists and 50 events, has consolidated most of its activities this year at Harbourfront Center. It begins at 6 p.m. and ends with fireworks at midnight. Call (416) 973-3000 for information and (416) 973-000 to purchase $7.50 buttons.

The Operetta Theater produces "The Czardas Princess" from Dec. 29 to Jan. 3. On Dec. 31 it's a package in the Viennese tradition, including dinner and a post-performance dance. Call (416) 366-7723.

Continuing the Viennese theme, Canada's New Year's Day Salute to Vienna makes its fourth appearance Jan. 1 at 2:30 p.m. at Roy Thomson Hall. Modeled on Austria's Salute to Vienna, Toronto's version is filled with orchestral music and singers from Vienna. Call (416) 593-4828, and begin 1998 in style.

New performances
Most visitors don't realize that the list of half-price theater tickets at T.O. Tix is often robust while Torontonians are busy with holiday doings. Located at 208 Yonge St., the outlet has a new phone message daily at noon detailing the day's offerings. Tickets are first come, first served, and available only in person on the day of the performance. In Toronto, call (416) 536-6468. From out of town, call (800) 541-0499.

One new sure-bet show is "Buddy," through Jan. 4 at the Princess of Wales Theater. The production hails from London's West End, where it played for more than a decade. Toronto audiences rightly love this sometimes overly loud reproduction of rocker Buddy Holly's life and lyrics. Call (800) 461-3333.

Aptly staged at the Theater at the Church of the Holy Trinity near the Eaton Center, "Late Nite Catechism" is a hilarious audience-interactive one-woman show on indefinite run. The humorous romp through the intricacies of Catholic education will resonate with those who have been through parochial school as well as anyone who has ever balked at following rules. The show has already enjoyed extended runs in Chicago, Boston, New York and two venues in Australia. The "sister" makes sure the capacity crowd sits on the edge of the chairs -- feet flat on the floor -- for the whole performance. Call (416) 872-1111.

Also new on the scene is "The Conjuror," on an indefinite run at the Royal Ontario Museum. At the ROM, theater-goers enter at the south door rather than the main entrance to see this interesting reproduction of an early 20th century magic show. Audience members are transported to the era of Houdini as David Ben wows them with exotic illusions and sleight-of-hand tricks. Call (416) 870-8000 for tickets, which also include ROM admission.

Seasonal shows
The National Ballet of Canada presents its "Nutcracker," set in the Russian countryside, at the Hummingbird Center for the Performing Arts through Jan. 2. Two performances have recently been added, increasing the number of tickets available for this popular holiday staple. Call the National Ballet's new box office number, (416) 345-9595.

"Disney on Ice -- Beauty and the Beast" whirls through the SkyDome for 13 performances Thursday through Dec. 30. Call (416) 870-8000. Call (941) 349-4848 for registration.

"Slava's Snowshow" moves into the Princess of Wales Theater from Jan. 6 to Feb. 8. After winning over audiences at the Edinburgh Festival and London's West End, this Russian import promises to leave theater-goers knee-deep in artificial snow at the end of each performance. Call (800) 461-3333.

Other performances
The Toronto production of "Rent" at the Royal Alexandra Theater though May 3 features lots of new local talent culled from more than 6,000 who auditioned. Call (800) 461-3333.

At the Art Gallery of Ontario, "Plains Indian Drawings, 1865-1935" makes its only Canadian stop on a tour of North America, exhibiting more than 150 drawings that chronicle the life of the Plains Indians. It's on view with the AGO's pay-what-you-can admission. The Keith Haring exhibit, a ticketed admission, closes Jan. 18. Call (416) 979-6648.

Maple Leaf Gardens is touting "The Giant Holiday Circus," in for four shows of three-ring action Jan. 2 and 3. It promises both traditional and innovative acts and technology. Backstreet Boys return to the SkyDome for a post-New Year's concert Jan. 3. At Massey Hall, Blue Rodeo has added a second performance, appearing Jan. 30 and 31. Call (416) 870-8000 for these three shows.

On Jan. 11 Maurice Sendak, theatrical designer and illustrator and author of children's books, speaks at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Center, followed by a panel discussion and coffee reception. Call (416) 363-6671. Sendak has designed the productions for the COC's upcoming operas "Hansel and Gretel" and "The Cunning Little Vixen," Jan. 23 to Feb. 8. Call (416) 872-2262.