It is not often that Christmas falls on a Sunday, the day I normally publish my weekly posts, so I wanted to take advantage of it this year with another Christmas themed post. In prior years, I have written about Christmas magic, Christmas trees, Christmas stockings, Christmas ornaments, Christmas music, and Christmas traditions (if you type “Christmas” in my blog’s search box, you can find all of these and more). This year, I am again writing about a Christmas tradition, but one that dates back over a hundred years ago, to December 18, 1892, in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Some of you may have figured out that date marks the premier performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet. Interestingly, the wooden nutcracker dolls that we know today actually predate the ballet but thanks to the ballet, nutcrackers at Christmas time have become as ubiquitous as Christmas trees themselves. Although it did not make its first appearance outside of Russia until 1934 (1944 in the US), many adults today can recall at sometime during their childhood, attending that special Christmas ballet.
I for one cannot actually recall seeing it as a child but I am certain my mom, who loved classical music, played it on the phonograph at Christmas time in our home. When I was in college and began to discover my own tastes in classical music, it was listening to the “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy” that got me interested in the ballet. And after I was married, The Nutcracker was a piece of music I would always listen to either while putting up the Christmas tree or wrapping Christmas presents.
But a most special association of this ballet for me was when my daughter was old enough, she became my companion to attend a live performance.
This is where I truly fell in love with the beautiful Nutcracker music and the festive theatrical performance of the ballet troupe. In a recent discussion with my daughter, as best as we can recall, we attended its performance together on at least three separate occasions. And each year to mark our attendance, I would give my daughter a wooden nutcracker for Christmas.
Since my daughter has grown up, married, moved away, and started her own family, I have not attended a single performance of The Nutcracker.
But this year, on the 130th anniversary of its first public performance, that changed for me—thanks to my in-town almost 8-year-old granddaughter.
It was not that she was following in her aunt’s footsteps and attending the ballet with me. No, she actually performed in it. But to clarify, it was not the full-length version that my daughter and I had attended, it was a version I had not heard of.
Clara and the Nutcracker is a charming rendition of the classic holiday tale with children and teens filling most of the ensemble and principal roles.
Since starting grade school, my granddaughter has signed up for several different afterschool activities such as chess or gymnastics. This fall, she signed up for ballet which I figured must have been one of her interests as she had previously asked for and received ballet shoes.
The ballet was for an hour and a half after school each Thursday with an occasional Saturday practice and she would often show us some of the moves she was learning.
The added benefit of this afterschool activity was all the lessons the class learned during the semester would culminate in their performance on a professional stage downtown!
But it almost didn’t happen. Two days before the big performance, my granddaughter came down sick. On Friday afternoon after my wife picked her up from school, she took her straight to the doctor. Running a fever with headaches, she was thankfully free of the illnesses we feared most, the ones running rampant, and was diagnosed with a non-specific viral infection.
In transit to the doctor, my wife also learned from our granddaughter that there was a mandatory dress rehearsal at the venue on Saturday and if absent, she would not be allowed to be in the ballet.
It was disappointing to learn Saturday morning that although feeling better, she still was running a low-grade fever.
Then just before lunch, we received a welcome peak of sunshine when our son informed us that she would be able to attend the dress rehearsal on Saturday afternoon as long as she wore a mask.
Here she is with her mask pulled down under her chin to reveal her production-ready, all made-up happy smile.
And here we are on Sunday afternoon with all of us in attendance, including little brother.
When the music started, I got chills from hearing the wonderful music that brought back so many precious remembrances. I thought of my daughter, and I thought of the new special memory that was being formed in my mind thanks to my granddaughter. With her 2-year-old brother in attendance, I didn’t expect to get to see the whole performance, but he was especially good throughout (partly thanks to videos on his mom’s phone).
When it came time for my granddaughter’s part, the Polichinelles Dance (little children or clowns), I was sitting on the steps with my grandson and his mom. His mom tapped me on the shoulder to say she was up next and with my familiarity with the music, I knew even before she tapped me. And then there she was bounding out onto the stage, chills again for me.
From where we sat, it was hard to tell during the performance which of the six young girls was my granddaughter (and videotaping and photos had been highly discouraged) but thankfully someone up close that my son knew snapped this shot of the girls upon the curtain call clarifying for me she was fourth from the right.
With the mass of families in the lobby, it was almost a madhouse to find our granddaughter where her daddy and I both presented her with a bouquet of flowers and her mom with a ballerina Christmas ornament. After posing for too many pictures for us excited parents and grandparents, we made our way to our cars taking in one last photo next to the digital billboard.
Upon leaving, I naturally began to wonder if my granddaughter would want to start a tradition of attending the ballet company’s full-length version with me, just like my daughter did.
Only time will tell…