The holiday season just wouldn't be right if there were not dozens of traditional Christmas choral performances at schools and churches, seasonally themed instrumental concerts, and all sorts of singalongs. Oh -- and you might add in a goodly number of presentations of Handel's beloved "Messiah" and Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" ballet to the menu as well.

But why not add a little spice by stirring a few unusual, even far-flung, seasonings into the happy holiday pot? Consider a vicarious visit to sample the winter season celebrated in the Balkans, Slavic lands, the Caucasus, various Eastern European Jewish traditions, or a dip into the Gypsy Romani culture.

No airplane ticket is necessary -- just attend one of this month's concerts by the group of musically adventurous women who call themselves "Kitka," a word that means "bouquet" in Bulgarian.

Founded in 1979, Kitka began as a grass-roots group of amateur singers from diverse backgrounds who shared a passion for the distinctive folk music of these Eastern European locales, much of which is characterized by asymmetric rhythms, intricate vocal ornamentation and exquisitely lush harmonies interspersed with surprising dissonances.

Another characteristic of the style is the amazing vocal timbre these women can create. It has an unusual and arresting impact, because they can quell most of their vibrato, producing inordinate power and projection. I was once told that this penetrating power originated as women working in the fields called out to communicate with each other over considerable distances.

Kitka blossomed into a refined professional ensemble, earning international renown for its artistry, versatility and mastery of a demanding technique and repertoire. Its music can be earthy, mesmerizing, even haunting.

Details: "Wintersongs with Kitka," 8 p.m. Dec. 13, St. Paul's Church, 114 Montecito Ave., Oakland; 8 p.m. Dec. 14, the Dance Palace, 503 B St., Point Reyes Station; 4 p.m. Dec. 15, St. Bede's Church, 2650 Sand Hill Road, Menlo Park; 8 p.m. Dec. 21, Old First Church, 1751 Sacramento St., San Francisco; and 5 p.m. Dec. 22, Nile Hall, 668 13th St., Oakland. $15-$40, 510-444-0323,

GOOD ITALIAN VIBRATIONS: How a "Venetian Christmas Mass" distinguishes itself will become apparent when the San Francisco Early Music Society joins forces with the choral group Magnificat and the early wind ensemble The Whole Noyse to present a program by that name featuring the brilliant polychoral music of Giovanni Gabrieli and the concertato music of Claudio Monteverdi. Believe me, music by any of these musicians separately can be highly satisfying -- but all together, it is likely to be sensational.

Details: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 20 at First United Methodist Church, 625 Hamilton St., Palo Alto; 8 p.m. Dec. 21 at the First Congregational Church, 2345 Channing Way, Berkeley. $12- $35, 800-595-4849.

MOTHER MARY COMES TO THEE: Ragazzi Continuo, a breathtaking, new all-male choral group (all alumni of the Ragazzi Boy Choir) is presenting three performances of a concert focused not on Baby Jesus, but on his mother, Mary. Under the leadership of Jesse Buddington, the program will range from Robert Shaw's arrangement of "Mary Had a Baby" to a modern setting of the ancient Gregorian chant "Salve Regina" by Kaj-Erik Gustafsson. One of the most popular works of modern American classical music, Morten Lauridsen's "O Magnum Mysterium," completes the program.

Details: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 15, Christ Church Parish, 770 North El Camino Real, San Mateo; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 21, All Saints Episcopal Church, 555 Waverly St., Palo Alto; 2:30 p.m. Dec. 22, Trinity St. Peter's Episcopal Church, 1668 Bush St., San Francisco. $18-$20, 650-342-8785,

IN MEMORIAM: Fremont residents are preparing for what is bound to be an emotional but ultimately heartwarming production on Sunday of Tchaikovsky's glorious "Nutcracker." Informally called "Yoko's Nutcracker Ballet," the piece will be performed as a memorial to Yoko Young, Fremont's late beloved ballerina, former model, choreographer, business leader, teacher, wife and mother who died in October. Former and current students of Yoko's Dance and Performing Arts Academy will dance, while Maestro David Sloss, conductor of the Fremont Symphony for 32 years, will conduct the Golden Gate Festival Orchestra.

Details: 2 p.m. Dec. 15, Smith Center at Ohlone College, 43600 Mission Blvd., Fremont. $20-$40, 510-659-6031.

Contact Cheryl North at