In ACT’s 2011 production, a reformed Scrooge (James Carpenter, center) celebrates the season.
In ACT's 2011 production, a reformed Scrooge (James Carpenter, center) celebrates the season. (Kevin Berne Images 2011)

"A Christmas Carol" was first published on Dec. 19, 1843. A heart-melting tale of social injustice in the Victorian age, it became an instant blockbuster, selling out its first printing by Christmas Eve. And Charles Dickens' classic ghost story has been a perennial favorite ever since.

Certainly, issues of poverty and greed have only gained traction in recent years, which may explain why "Carol" continues to hold court on stages big and small. Everywhere you look this holiday season, Tiny Tim is back with a vengeance, the ghost of Jacob Marley is rattling his chains, and Scrooge is getting his bah-humbug on.

Wallace Smith & Ta’Rea Campbell in Disney’s "THE LION KING," by American Musical Theatre of San Jose.
Wallace Smith & Ta'Rea Campbell in Disney's "THE LION KING," by American Musical Theatre of San Jose. (Joan Marcus/ Disney)

Of course, if the thought of the traditional holiday chestnuts turns you into a bit of a Grinch, don't fret. There's plenty of new and interesting fare out there. Avant-garde puppetry, Mark Twain and Disney are all on the playbill this winter. Here are some hot picks for holiday theater from the beloved to the bold.

'A Christmas Carol'

Our picks for three of the most resplendent "Carols" out there: San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater has been celebrating Dickens as the bard of Christmas for the last 36 years. In recent years, the inimitable James Carpenter has been bringing the bah humbug as Scrooge. It runs Friday through Dec. 24 at ACT, 415 Geary St., San Francisco; $20-$135; 415-749-2228; www.act-sf.org.

Center Rep also puts some holly in its heart for its 15th annual "Carol," starring Mark Anderson Phillips as old Ebenezer. It runs Dec. 6-16 at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek; $27-$49; 925-943-7469; www.centerrep.org.

San Jose Rep is also bringing back its "Carol," starring Richard Farrell. Rick Lombardo's adaptation runs through Dec. 23 at San Jose Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio; $29-$74; 408-367-7255; www.sjrep.com.

'The White Snake'

Mary Zimmerman is a master at the art of low-tech spectacle. She has enchanted the eyes of theatergoers with a visually dazzling canon from "Metamorphoses" to "Argonautika." Now the Tony winner returns to Berkeley Rep with the lovely "The White Snake." A sweet version of the Chinese fable about two spunky snakes, a human romance and an evil monk, this 90-minute fantasia runs through Dec. 23 at Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St.; $29-$99; 510-647-2949; www.berkeleyrep.org

'The Lion King'

Disney's "The Lion King" pounces back into the Bay Area in time for the holidays. Julie Taymor's eye-popping puppet fantasy is an homage to the hit animated film. The epic tale of Simba, the lion cub who inherits the throne of his father's wild kingdom, this may well be the purr-fect show to introduce children to the realm of theater. It's a little like "Hamlet" with felines. The Broadway blockbuster runs through Jan. 13 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco; $35-$199 (subject to change); 888-746-1799; www.shnsf.com.

'Big River'

TheatreWorks sails down the musical epic "Big River." A Tony-winning musical version of Mark Twain's masterpiece, this heartwarmer spins the tale of Huck Finn's journey down the mighty Mississippi. Along the way, he encounters issues of fate, slavery and loyalty that will change his life forever. Starring TheatreWorks favorite James Monroe Iglehart, coming home to star as Jim after his three-year run in Broadway's "Memphis," the holiday show runs through Dec. 30 at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto; $23-$73; 650-463-1960; www.theatreworks.org.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her stories at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, follow her at Twitter.com/KarenDSouza4 and like her at www.facebook.com/Dsouzatheaterpage