When I was a little girl, my grandmother took me to see The Nutcracker. It was a smart choice on my grandmother's part, I was very intrigued by the concept of toys coming to life and it had just enough guns and rats to placate my little brother. It was quite the event. I'd put on my shiniest, itchiest dress and whatever shoes I thought looked most like ballet slippers and parade downtown to the big theater.
From the moment we stepped into the lobby, it felt like Christmas. There was fake snow stapled to the floor, giant candy canes, and all sorts of whimsical winter wonderland paraphernalia. I would nestle in my plush red seat with my program clutched tight, watch about forty minutes of ballet, and fall asleep.
We went four or five times, and I never made it through the second act. Not once. I could get through the endless party scene and the rat battle and the dancing snowflakes, but once it came time for the vaguely food-themed tribute dances, I was done for.
Looking back, I am not sure why my grandmother shelled out year after year for me to take a lavishly scored nap. Maybe she went to The Nutcracker as a little girl, or she wished she could have gone. Maybe her friends took their grandkids and came back with wonderful stories of holiday bonding. My family was not so enthusiastic. Asking my brother about The Nutcracker today prompts an enormous eye roll and a heavy sigh. “It's tradition, I guess,” he said. “We had to do it. We were obligated.”
Tis the season of traditional obligations
That sense of traditional obligation runs heavy this time of year. We hear the same songs, make the same food, even watch the same plays year after year. Perhaps we're placating older relatives, or reliving our childhood, but whatever we're trying to do, there's a sense that some things just shouldn't change.
As Christmas comes around again, we mark that another year has passed, but enacting familiar customs makes it feel that no time has passed at all. It's not just nostalgia, we're trying to stop time. It doesn't work, of course. Kids grow up, people pass away, and the traditions that mean the world to you may be completely hollow to your children. Time does pass, things do change, and going to see the Sugar Plum Fairy prance around for the umpteenth time isn't actually going to change that.
Or maybe it does.
Cynical adult me can pretend that I'm over Tchaikovsky's hoary winter chestnut, but the first time I saw The Nutcracker, I literally got up and danced along in the aisles. I don't remember this, but my grandmother certainly does and she tells the story over and over again. What I do remember are the snowflakes. As a Californian kid, snow was something mysterious and unknowable, and watching it come to life was incredible. I remember the stage filling with impossibly elegant women whirling around each other in intricate, crystalline patterns. Their arms melted from brittle points to flowing water, their skirts billowed and drifted around their strong, straight bodies.
When the sky opened up, sending cascades of beautiful, impossible snow down onto the stage, I felt like I had witnessed something divine, something truly magical. To this day, if it snows on stage, there is a solid chance I will gasp in joy.
What will you do with your children?
I've been thinking a lot about tradition as this year will be my daughter's first Christmas. The stakes are low, she's too busy working on object permanence to conjure up much holiday spirit. But someday soon she'll be putting on her shiniest, itchiest dress and going out to see a holiday show.
Going to a theater is a smart way to celebrate. It's a chance to cultivate a new generation of audience members, to feel like a part of a grand tradition, or just to get out of the house before you and your relatives kill each other. There's something special about the ritual of entering the space of a theater. It's a space where anything can happen, where actor and audience collaborate on a collective act of imagination in that space in that time. It opens us up to experience something greater. It increases our capacity for wonder.
When we take children to the theater during the holidays, we're bringing them into a space where magic is possible. And if magic is possible there, maybe they will be able to find it all around them. They'll take an extra look at their toys before they fall asleep, or see flurries of snow as an elegant dance. That's when we want to stop time, when kids still believe the world is magic. When anything is possible.
It will be years before we take our little family out to the ballet, and if she's anything like me, several more until she can stay conscious through a whole show. But, until then, I will blast the Waltz of the Snowflakes and dance around the house with my daughter in my arms, whirling and flowing in intricate crystalline patterns as the snow cascades from the sky.