Every family has its Christmas traditions, some more heartfelt than others. But for one Raleigh dad and his son, a night at The Nutcracker ballet gives them a few hours of culture and a lifetime of memories.
I buttoned my 3-year-old boy into an oxford shirt, clipped a bow tie on his collar, wrestled his feet into a pair of dress shoes, and pushed him out the door with a cookie in his pocket — ready to launch the first official Shaffer Christmas tradition.
Sam looked like a miniature George Will as I loaded him into the car, studious and overdressed. This was a kid who usually sports skinned knees and Spider Man pajamas, who can’t go anywhere without a rubber dinosaur in his hand.
Did I seriously expect him to endure two hours of ballet?
Did I really think I could keep Sam in his seat through both acts of The Nutcracker without ratchet straps?
Did I think he would dance out the front door of the Progress Energy Center into the chill of downtown Raleigh in December, turn pirouettes around the fountain, and beg to see it a second time, a third time, every Christmas for the rest of his life?
No. This was my wife’s idea. Amber is the family dreamer.
Still, the notion isn’t as harebrained as you might think.
In New York City; Boston, Maryland; and San Francisco, California, children get shuttled to The Nutcracker every December. It’s as essential as watching the marathon of A Christmas Story on TNT.
Urban preschoolers adore the Mouse King and the Sugar Plum Fairy the way kids like Sam idolize Buzz Lightyear and R2D2. In those capitals of high culture, I am sure, children play the “Danse Chinoise” on an iPhone.
And so shall Sam, I tell myself.
But here, in Raleigh, Tchaikovsky’s dusty gem doesn’t always get folks swooning.
The Carolina Ballet has seen its audience slowly dwindle. Folks may want to see The Nutcracker once. A single night of waltzing flowers is fine. But two? Every year? A family tradition?
Not so much.
You can attend a watered-down or modern-twist version without hunting too hard. The story of young Clara and her holiday dreams have been performed as a Mickey Mouse cartoon and as a disastrous 3-D movie starring Nathan Lane.
But in our house, we believe in dragging children to events that make them squirm and pout in the hopes that culture will somehow seep in through their ears. We want our Nutcracker as Tchaikovsky intended: unplugged.
So on the Wednesday night before Christmas in the Progress Energy Center lobby, underneath a chandelier, Amber sipped a flute of champagne and confessed that the night already fulfilled her dreams.
“I always wanted to have a little boy and take him to The Nutcracker with my handsome husband,” she said, swooning.
All husbands are handsome at the ballet. Must be the champagne.
Memory in the making
I grew up in a household unsentimental about holidays.
My father kept a trash can next to the tree on Christmas morning, and the wrapping paper never hit the floor. We didn’t carol. We didn’t deck the halls all that much.
So tiny things became important: Linus’s speech in A Charlie Brown Christmas, late nights with the grown-ups and their Irish coffee, my grandfather turning up his hearing aid loud enough to hear everyone at the dinner table.
The relics from my childhood Christmases are corny jokes now, like the Bing Crosby holiday album with its Hawaiian and Scottish carols, the blinking Chinese lanterns we hung on the tree, and the shot-glass-size Santa mugs we now use for drinking tequila.
Nobody in my family looks forward to Christmas. My parents usually leave the country to avoid it, taking advantage of low airfares on December 25.
Amber’s father seldom utters the phrase “the holidays” without scowling. I rarely see her brothers before noon on this blessed day, and I expect they prefer to sleep through it.
Until a few years ago, I got more excited about Arbor Day and Cinco de Mayo.
As a new parent, I tell myself sometimes that I’ll spare my kid all the hokum about reindeer and elves, that I’ll resist participating in time-honored fibs like letters to the North Pole — lies I’ll one day have to retract.
Then December comes around, and I realize what a jerk I’d be to kill the Christmas buzz. So I show him how to play “Jingle Bells” on the xylophone, and I dig for memories of how it felt to see the world through a preschooler’s eyes.
I wanted Sam’s holiday to be epic.
I wanted a tradition he’d tell his college roommate about in 15 years, something that would add dimension to his character just by telling the story. I wanted an experience that would make him feel special, maybe a little exotic, something that none of his friends do.
Amber actually got the idea from her childhood ballet lessons, when she studied under the famed Miss Bobbi in Tarboro. So I went along when she pitched it.
Seeing The Nutcracker every year might not seem cool now, and it definitely won’t at age 14, but maybe Sam will think back on such a thing when this young dad becomes an old man.
He might slip a Nutcracker CD in the stereo at the nursing home lounge and ask, “Remember this, Dad?”
Even if The Nutcracker means nothing to Sam, it’s the sort of thing he’ll remember — and childhood should be memorable above all else.
A few words about The Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky wrote it in 1892 when children weren’t as tough an audience.
Nineteenth-century Russia had no labor laws, let alone Nintendo, so a night of dancing mice qualified as a treat.
But kids aren’t turned on by wooden soldiers and spring-loaded toys anymore. The Nutcracker drags a bit if you grew up on texting and Wii.
I worried that the sight of Clara and Fritz prancing around in their button-up pajamas at the family Christmas party, eating pies and tarts, would spark a tantrum — in me, not to mention Sam. But I wanted to see if the world’s most famous ballet could capture the attention of a fidgety kid and his fidgety dad. I wanted to know if fancy clothes and chandeliers had any place in our holiday future.
Then the lights dimmed inside the theater.
Girls in red dresses and white stockings scampered to their seats, straining to see over the heads of grown-ups in front of them. Boys tugged uncomfortably at their collars. Sam flirted with a preschooler in the row behind him, until we pushed him down, faced him forward, and shushed him emphatically.
“Once upon a time,” the words appeared onstage, “a girl named Clara had a great adventure …”
Here’s the thing about the attention spans of tiny people: They will stare all day at a car-insurance commercial or even a test pattern if it appears on television. But the action in Clara’s party scene demands more of its audience.
You’ve got men in tailcoats and sideburns, and children playing leapfrog, which was high comedy in 1890s Russia. But in 2010 Raleigh, Sam squirmed. Our tradition wasn’t going to last through the first act.
Then the mice appeared!
Mice with swords. Mice that fight and dance. Soldiers and guns and more guns and … pow!
In this, Sam is interested.
The Nutcracker leaped on for another two hours, and we enjoyed the fake snowfall, the fluttering of harpists’ fingers, the gingerbread men.
Sam kept shifting in his seat, but he also mostly paid attention. Halfway through the second act, in the middle of the “Dance of the Reed Flutes,” he put his head in my lap and asked why Clara didn’t stop dreaming and just go to sleep. I asked myself the same question.
About 10 minutes shy of the end, Amber and I toted our bow-tied boy home. We granted The Nutcracker a TKO, considering Sam wasn’t standing by the final curtain, but it was a close contest between boy and ballet.
Outside, a man in a Santa hat played “O Come, All Ye Faithful” on the saxophone, and we tossed some change into his case.
The BB&T tower glowed green over the Raleigh skyline, and we paused to consider the results of year one.
Maybe this year, Sam will make it all the way through.
But Amber and I were still pretty proud that we got a 3-year-old to fix his brain on the stage for more than an hour and that our Christmas tradition left us with more than wadded-up wrapping paper.
When we tucked in Sam, far past his bedtime, he was still jabbering about mice kings and gingerbread men.
The Nutcracker by the Carolina Ballet
Progress Energy Center’s Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
2 East South Street
Raleigh, N.C. 27601
Josh Shaffer is an award-winning writer who works for The News & Observer in Raleigh. Josh’s most recent stories for Our State were “The Barbecue Brotherhood” and “Follow His Lead” (November 2011).