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Christmas displays from Basswood Hollow Drive in Toms River and Woodhaven Blvd. in Bayville.
Brian Johnston

This holiday season, all of the time-tested Christmas traditions are back: the tree, the stuffed stockings, even the progressive guitar rock.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra, beloved purveyors of yuletide shredding, are back on the road for their 20th year of touring. They return to our area for matinee and evening performances Friday, Dec. 21, at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia and Saturday, Dec. 22, at the Prudential Center in Newark.

But these also are bittersweet times for the band;last April, Trans-Siberian Orchestra founder Paul O’Neill died. This winter marks the ensemble’s second year of touring without O’Neill.

“Going on tour last year without him, without him being in rehearsals and everything that Paul does, it was obviously very strange,” drummer Jeff Plate said. “But you know, Paul had said for years he wanted to develop something that was going to outlast us all, that was going to be passed down from generation to generation, and Trans-Siberian Orchestra was something that he really felt was something for everybody and something that would be timeless.

“And lo and behold, here we are doing this without Paul. And as difficult as it was, it was still extremely successful. So what Paul set out to do, he definitely achieved.”

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The current TSO tour is a traveling production of “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve,” based on the group’s 1999 television special. Presented by the Hallmark Channel, the tour will deliver more than 100 performances in 65 North American cities.

Over the last 20 years, the band has played nearly 2,000 shows to more than 15 million audience members, grossing more than $675 million (with more than $15 million donated to local charities) and selling 12 million albums and DVDs.

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The catalog grew in September with the Rhino Entertainment release of the 20th anniversary edition of the band’s “The Christmas Attic” LP.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra has upcoming performances in Philadelphia and Newark. (Photo: Courtesy of Jason McEachern)

This seasonal juggernaut has its roots at the crossroads of theater and hard rock; O’Neill was a New York City native with a passion for Broadway who worked in hard rock management. 

“This idea was kicking around Paul’s head in the ’80s,” Plate recounted. “And when he became the producer and the writing partner of the Oliva Brothers (Jon and Criss) in the band Savatage, this is where some of this stuff started coming to light.

“And if you listen to some of the earlier Savatage records, ‘Gutter Ballet’ (1989) in particular where Paul really started incorporating some of these ideas into the band’s music, you can see where the seeds of TSO were planted.”

Plate joined Savatage in 1994. The following year, the band recorded and released “Dead Winter Dead,” a concept album about the Bosnian War that featured the prescient track “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24).”

“Honestly, at the time we didn’t know, (we asked) ‘Why is he (O’Neill) doing this? This seems kind of crazy,’” Plate said of the game-changing song. “And once we heard the final production, the final product, I was like, ‘Wow, that sounds fantastic.’

“But to think that that song would take off in a completely different direction — you know, adult contemporary, Christian, you name it, holiday, all of a sudden that song became the vehicle for everything that Paul was thinking of trying to do.”

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From those unexpected beginnings, Trans-Siberian Orchestra grew into a holiday institution for generations of fans around the world.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra has upcoming performances in Philadelphia and Newark. (Photo: Courtesy of Jason McEachern)

“In a lot of Paul’s lyrics and the stories, a lot of it is about people finding their way and love lost and love found again and redemption, that kind of thing,” Plate said. “This really is a family; it’s a family show, it’s a family experience for the people in our audience.

“It’s also a family when it comes to the band and the management because we’ve been together doing this for a long time … and along the way we’ve lost some people. And every year we show up and fortunately the past several years everybody has returned for the most part, last year was the exception.”

The band is deeply associated with the holidays, a time when family and friends reunite; each year things change but traditions, like Trans-Siberian Orchestra, hold true.

“You show up for Thanksgiving dinner and chances are somebody’s not going to be there for whatever reason, and that’s just something that you have to deal with, that is your new reality,” Plate said. “So TSO has become a family with all of the people that are involved in the cast, but also with the audience and the people that have supported us for all of these years, because at the very core it still carries the same message.”

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

When: 3:30 and 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 21

Where: Wells Fargo Center, 3601 South Broad St., Philadelphia

Tickets: $35 to $85.50

Info: 215-336-3600, www.wellsfargocenterphilly.com

And

When: 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 22

Where: Prudential Center, 25 Lafayette St., Newark

Tickets: $44.50 to $74.50

Info: 973-757‑6000, www.prucenter.com

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