Area notables share some of their favorite family traditions
Shrimp, balls of yarn, gorilla movies and funny cards all mean the holidays are here for well-known personalities who live and visit in the Capital Region.
Local celebrities were happy to share their favorite traditions for autumn and winter gatherings. Some stories may sound familiar — some may sound inspired.
Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Glenville, believes the celebration of Christ’s birth is the all-important part of Christmas.
“Then there is the traditional Italian Christmas dinner of seven fishes,” Tedisco said. “Mom is 97 and had for many years cooked it all, but now she guides us as we share in trying to emulate her magic touch. My brother Tom, his wife Nancy, my wife Mary and me join nieces and nephews as we work together to prepare this traditional feast. It consists of fried smelt — a small, well-seasoned fish. And baccala [cod] prepared three ways — in a cold salad with Italian olives, baked in the oven with a red sauce and fried in olive oil on the stove. There is shrimp scampi and cocktail and calamari fried and in a cold salad. No bread, but a delicious special mixture called zeppole of flour and Mother’s secret recipe made into dough-like elongated forms filled with anchovies and fried. And of course there is the macaroni aioli (olive oil) with herbs and more fish.
“It’s a celebration of the birth of our savior and a meal we wait all year for. Then we spend the next week doing laundry trying to get the scent of garlic and olive oil out of our clothing. But being together as a family to rejoice in this sacred holiday and enjoy this traditional meal is all worth it. I can’t wait!”
For Rodger Wyland, sports director at Menands television station WNYT, Christmas Eve also means seafood. But only one representative from the ocean is invited.
“Christmas would be the favorite holiday, but nothing tops Christmas Eve and the massive consumption of shrimp,” Wyland said. “Growing up, it was a standing tradition in my family that my late grandmother started. She and my parents would buy two pounds of shrimp and cook it with a special basil seasoning and that would be the meal. Shrimp and french fries was the dinner in the Wyland household, followed by the exchange of gifts. The tradition lives on today with my wife Kelly, but the basil season is tough to duplicate. My grandmother passed away 15 years ago, but there is not a Christmas Eve that I don’t think of her. She would be smiling to know that shrimp is still a part of the meal on Christmas Eve.”
Sneaking into stockings
Christmas stockings hung by the fireplace are in the memory scrapbook of Schenectady County District Attorney Robert M. Carney. So are balls of yarn.
“Many families celebrate Christmas with stockings filled with gifts,” Carney said. “They were always special to me and my younger sisters Kathy and Jean, along with other traditions passed down by my grandmother from her roots in New England as the granddaughter of Maine sea captains.
“One of her traditions was, for each child, to hang a ball of yarn on the tree that she had wound by hand with little trinkets, candies and messages (such as, ‘Santa says don’t fight with your sister’) tied at intervals. We would unwind the yarn, claiming the prizes and tolerating the advice, until we found the special gift at the center.
“But stockings were our favorite,” Carney added. “Left over the mantle, my parents would fill them and move them into our bedrooms after we were asleep. What began with an inability to fall asleep when we were very young and anxious for a glimpse of Santa evolved into playing the game of pretending to be asleep to fool our parents into leaving us the stockings so that we could open them immediately and sneak into each other’s bedrooms to share our good fortune.
“My most memorable Christmas was the one we spent at my grandparents’ home at Lake Luzerne when I was 11,” Carney recalled. “Twenty-five family members, each with stockings, celebrated Christmas in a snowbound house with five fireplaces nestled in the pines high above the lake. There were so many presents behind the pocket doors to the reception room where the tree was kept that only a narrow path remained to the front door.
“That night I slept in the basement. I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday, but I remember the Hardy Boys ranch mystery I read that night in bed. My mother was always the most skeptical of our fake sleep. She could tell when I was reading with a flashlight deep under my bed covers, even when I stuffed towels under the bedroom door. So that night I was pleased to see that it was my Aunt Betty bringing me my stocking. Her I could fool. I opened it quickly after she left, regretting only that Kathy was two floors above me and we’d have to wait until morning to compare loot.
“Kathy gave her two boys yarn balls when they were young, and we have all kept the stocking tradition intact. I am quite sure that none of the stockings ever given to my four children or her two were ever opened after 7 a.m.”
Spirit of the season
Witches are most active around Halloween, but two witches — the stars of the touring production of “Wicked” that wraps up its November visit to Proctors today — are enchanted by Christmas.
“Definitely, decorating the Christmas tree with my mom to Nat King Cole’s version of ‘The Christmas Song,’ ” said Christine Dwyer, the emerald-skinned Elphaba in the celebrated story about the witches of Oz. “I always hang the Santa ornament and she always hangs a peacock ornament.”
For Jeanna de Waal, who plays Glinda in the show, spirits are popular parts of her Christmas festivities.
“We always open a few presents on Christmas Eve, with mince pies and mulled wine,” she said. “One present inevitably leads to two, which often leads to all the presents being opened on Christmas Eve. Whoops!”
Liz Bishop, news anchor at WRGB, said “early” and “often” are two words to describe her holiday traditions.
“Just about nothing is safe when I get in the Christmas spirit,” she said. “Every year I head out to my favorite holiday craft fair and pore through the homemade goods that I wish I had created and pick out just the perfect thing for mostly friends. I have a dad and three brothers who probably aren’t that into scented soaps and candles or handmade earrings. They usually get a shirt and a gift certificate.
“I’m not one for bells and whistles when it comes to decorating, but I do put small pine trees on either side of the fireplace and a big ‘Jingle Bells’ sign made out of wood above. There are at least a half-dozen wreaths in the house and dancing reindeer on the mantel.
“I love to send cards, and there’s no rhyme or reason each year whether they are funny, or religious or inspirational. A powerful picture on the front of the card is usually the selling point.
“Certainly, one of the most important traditions is the ‘Melodies of Christmas’ concert, which I help host each year, for the Melodies Center for Childhood Cancer. Young musicians from the Empire State Youth Orchestra make beautiful Christmas music with an all-star chorale. Both the audience and I dress up in our Christmas finest and for me, it’s four days of holiday immersion — a fantastic way to remember that Christmas is a season of giving.
“As for the big day itself, the last few years have been especially meaningful for me, as I have gone to Mass with my family in the chapel of the school where I went to high school. It’s a beautiful little place with trickling water flowing down a rock wall, and it’s packed to capacity for a heartfelt, simple service that reminds me of the real meaning of Christmas.”
Darlene Myers, artistic director of Northeast Ballet, is all for dancing dolls, toy soldiers and a trio of mice every December. She is director of “The Nutcracker” and moves her company into Proctors in Schenectady every year for the holiday ballet.
“My holiday tradition is ‘Nutcracker’ — it has been since I was 18 years of age. I do love Thanksgiving, due to the fact I give the company and myself a short break to regroup and rest up before the big push, and it is in between the Hall of Springs ‘Nutcracker Tea’ shows and Proctors’ big shows of ‘Nutcracker.’ Also, the reflection time that Thanksgiving brings is a welcome respite with all the holiday hubbub. It gives me space to experience the blessings that have been bestowed upon me.”
Jay Bobbin, a Glens Falls-based media writer and movie reviewer for Tribune Media Services, likes the glow of a Christmas tree. But he also appreciates the glow of a television set and a movie screen.
“This probably won’t come as a shock, but many of my favorite holiday traditions revolve around movies — specific ones,” he said. “I remember such ape pictures as ‘King Kong’ and ‘Mighty Joe Young’ being big Thanksgiving staples on TV in my younger years, but those have been replaced by the James Bond movies. Happily for me, they’re always on some channel on Turkey Day (this year Syfy), which I usually start and end with Agent 007. And in between, there’s a big meal somewhere.
“Then, at some point during that weekend, I treat myself to ‘A Christmas Story’ and ‘White Christmas.’ If they’re on television then, great. If not, I grab my Blu-ray discs of both, and I get right into the seasonal spirit. I also have ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ but I like to leave that as the Christmas Eve tradition it’s been for so many years.”
Philip Morris, chief executive officer at Proctors in Schenectady, spends the Christmas holiday away from the lively arts. He finds enough lively activity at home.
“Probably the most interesting and important tradition is spending the whole day with my now-adult kids, slowly eating, slowly visiting, slowly opening presents,” he said. “Suddenly, it’s midnight and it was wonderful.”
Dave Graham, lead guitarist for local rockers The BLiSTeRz, said his family’s tradition combines greeting cards, family and a jolly sense of humor.
“What has become a Christmas tradition in the Graham household is to come up with funny or goofy Christmas cards to send out to our friends and family every year,” said Burnt Hills resident Graham. “Not that we don’t appreciate the beautiful Norman Rockwell-ian photos that most families send out. That just isn’t us. For one, with a son with autism, it has never been very easy for us to capture that perfect family photo. So we decided to roll with it and go for the silly one and give people a laugh! My kids Rory, 11, and Luke, 15, have a blast doing these photos every year now. We are currently scheming and planning for our upcoming Christmas photo.”
Graham may be the family’s star on stage, but he is not the lead on the family’s Yule project.
“My wife Michele is usually the mastermind behind these crazy photo shoots,” Graham said. “I am just the unskilled labor. I have to give credit where credit is due.”