The holiday season is the time of year when we take comfort in the familiar — which explains the sold-out crowds for perennial favorites such as “The Nutcracker,” Handel’s “Messiah” and “A Christmas Carol.” What keeps people coming back to the same shows again and again? To find out, we asked local families about their holiday arts traditions.
The Hardy family’s ‘Nutcracker’ love affair
Don’t bring mixed nuts to the Hardy family’s Christmas party. While their home in Prince George’s County is filled with more than 100 nutcrackers, not one of them actually works.
“They are all decorative,” says Melvin Hardy, 53.
The family started collecting them after Melvin took his oldest daughter, Elizabeth, to see the Washington Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” in 2001, when she was only 3. She sat through the entire show with barely a peep, Melvin recalls.
“At the end of the performance … she put her arms around my neck and said, ‘Thank you, Daddy, for taking me to “The Nutcracker,” ’ and I just melted,” he says.
That kicked off an annual tradition, and now the whole family of four goes to see the show — which The Washington Ballet has been performing since 1961 and updated in 2004 — every year. Though the Hardys aren’t dancers themselves, or major ballet fans, The Washington Ballet’s “Nutcracker” captured their imagination, says Melvin’s wife, Johnetta.
“We really love Septime Webre’s American version, with George Washington as the Nutcracker,” she says. “Everyone has their own favorite parts.”
Elizabeth’s has always been the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” she says. “That scene is just so beautiful with the snowflakes and the other fairies dancing around, building to her solo,” says Elizabeth, now 19.
Her sister, Victoria, 18, loves the score. “I can recognize any of the songs anywhere I go,” she says. “It’s just phenomenal music.”
Elizabeth and Victoria are currently away at college, but they are coming back to D.C. this month to see “The Nutcracker” with their parents. Even if they eventually settle down in other cities, they plan to see The Washington Ballet’s “Nutcracker” with their own families someday.
Why? “It’s tradition!” Elizabeth says.
Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. NW; through Dec. 24, $30-$150.
The Schmidt family’s visit to Christmas past
Lindsey Schmidt, 37, loves history, theater and Christmas, so when she heard about Ford’s Theatre’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol” in 2012, she knew “there was no way I was going to miss that,” she says. She went with a friend that first year, but in 2013 she was determined to take along her husband, Joe, and her two stepkids — then 7 and 9 — to see the traditional take on Charles Dickens’ famous tale of a stingy grump who is persuaded by ghosts to change his ways.
The production, created by Michael Baron in 2009, has won accolades for its lavish Victorian costumes and sets, but it wasn’t an immediate hit with the Schmidt kids.
“This was their first real theater experience, and they were not really open to it at first,” Lindsey recalls. “We sat on the balcony, which was a mistake because it was a little high for the kids to see over, so they were fidgety.”
The third year the Alexandria family all went, they sat in the front row and the kids enjoyed the whole show. Last year, the Schmidt kids insisted on going to see “A Christmas Carol” even though their father, who is in the military, was deployed at the time.
“So it was just me and the kids,” Lindsey says. “They were still excited about going. It was important to them to not break the tradition.”
Joe will be back in the audience this year with his family, who have become connoisseurs of the Ford’s Theatre production.
“There are a lot of little details in the show that you wouldn’t pick up on unless you go to multiple shows,” Lindsey says. For instance, there’s a puppet cart onstage in the first act that displays the show’s set in miniature — something one of Lindsey’s stepdaughters noticed the second year she went.
The family’s sense of tradition was jarred a bit when Ed Gero, the actor who had played Ebenezer Scrooge since 2009, left the part in 2016. “I wasn’t sure what to expect with the new Scrooge last year — it’s such a major role — but Craig Wallace did an amazing job, so we are looking forward to seeing him again this year,” Lindsey says.
They’re also looking forward to playing a little prank on the cast. Before each show starts, some of the actors walk down the aisles in the audience, pretending to sell oranges for shillings, but no one ever takes them up on it. Well, the Schmidt kids bought some shillings on Etsy and are bringing them to the show to see if they can buy oranges, Lindsey says.
“We are going to try to be a part of the show,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t throw the actors off.”
Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW; through Dec. 31, $32-$105.
The Long family’s splendor in the brass
As soon as Paul Long, 11, walked into the room full of about 350 tuba players at the Kennedy Center last December, he was intimidated.
“It was a bit overwhelming because I had only been playing for about two years at the time, and as I listened to everyone else practice around me, they just sounded so much better,” he says.
The occasion for this mass of brass: Merry TubaChristmas, a holiday tradition that was born in 1974 at Rockefeller Plaza’s ice rink in New York City when hundreds of tuba, euphonium and sousaphone players got together to play Christmas carols. It’s since spread around the world — the Kennedy Center gathering has been happening for about 25 years now, and anyone can show up with a tuba and play along.
Last year, after an hour of practicing traditional songs including “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Deck the Halls,” Paul and his fellow musicians filed into the Concert Hall and filled the entire stage and balconies usually occupied by audience members. The audience for the free concert filled the rest of the seats.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” says Paul’s mother, Laura. “When you think of tubas, you think of them having that deep marching band kind of a sound, so it’s hard to imagine them carrying a tune by themselves. And then when we went and heard it, it was just glorious.”
Paul quickly shed his stage fright. “After you start playing and you hear all the tubas together, it just sounds so great,” he says. His favorite song? “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
“It was really interesting having all the tubas playing a song that’s usually sung by people in such a high octave,” he says.
The family of six, who live in Burke, Va., had so much fun, they are making Merry TubaChristmas a family tradition.
“I would go even if I didn’t know anyone playing in it,” Laura says. “I’m never missing it again!”
As for Paul, the event cemented his love for an instrument that rarely gets the spotlight.
“I think I will keep playing tuba for a long time — the rest of my life, probably. It was really great to see people in their 50s who started playing as kids and are so good now, and I thought, ‘Wow, that could be me one day,’ ” he says.
Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; Mon., rehearsal at 4 p.m., performance at 6 p.m., free.