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Holiday Style | Magazine

The traditions of Boston’s beloved Christmas magicians

Inside stories from the professional entertainers whose work shifts overlap with Santa’s.

Winslow townson
Pops conductor Keith Lockhart and a friend.

When my wife was a child, she woke up at 5 a.m. on Christmas — not to pester her parents about opening presents, but to help box up pastries and dinner rolls at their Italian bakery north of New York City. Christmas wasn’t just a workday, it was one of the busiest days of the year, and the whole family was expected to pitch in.

Working on Christmas while presents beckon from underneath the tree sounds Grinchian, but my wife remembers those mornings wistfully: The quiet of the still-sleeping streets, the bustle and camaraderie as friends stopped in and lines stretched out the door, and her dad relishing his role as the Santa Claus of cannolis. Sometime after noon, he would lock up and give away the last few items so the family could finally go home to celebrate.

While the merry masses go about favorite holiday rituals, whether in line at the bakery or in awe at the theater, the people who help create that magic experience the season a little differently. They’re working overtime to help the rest of us make joyful memories. But when, and how, do they celebrate?

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We asked the people behind some of Boston’s most beloved holiday traditions about their own rites of Christmas and what the season of wonder is like when you play a key role in making it special for thousands of other people.

Keith Lockhart

Conductor, Boston Pops

Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart will lead 40 performances of the Holiday Pops in the weeks before Christmas Eve — a tradition he inherited more than 20 years ago. “I really love Christmas music, which is good,” he says. “If I didn’t, I’d have been driven mad by now.”

It makes for a demanding December, especially with a 6-year-old and 8-year-old at home, but Lockhart remains grateful for the chance to do something he and audiences both love. “These concerts are treasured by so many people,” he says. “It’s fun to get to almost play Santa Claus, in a way, for other people.”

With mornings free, Lockhart squeezes in some family time and holiday errands despite his crowded schedule: taking the kids to school and shopping for gifts early in the day, and picking up a tree on his only night off. But other seasonal festivities fall by the wayside. “Lots of people go to Christmas parties, but I haven’t been to one in so many years,” he says. “I think people stopped inviting me because I stopped saying yes. At least I hope that’s the reason!”

What he craves most around the holidays is time at home. His family always attends the last Christmas Eve show so they can all be together for a big dinner afterward, and from there on it’s nothing but opening presents — and being present — at home.

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“About five minutes after the last of the shows, when I’m up in my green room and there’s a knock on the door and it’s my kids and they run and knock me over,” Lockhart says, “that’s when I realize I’m home for Christmas.”

Heather SOUTHWICK
Heather Southwick (right) with Boston Ballet dancer Desean Taber.

Heather Southwick

Director of physical therapy, Boston Ballet

For Heather Southwick, director of physical therapy for Boston Ballet, Thanksgiving carries added importance — because right on its heels, The Nutcracker begins its month-long run at the Boston Opera House. “My family knows my turkey is treated with a lot of love,” Southwick says. “It gets a bath in brine, it gets a full herb butter massage. And I’m a physical therapist, so it’s really tender meat by the time it comes out of the oven.”

Nutcracker season is a marathon for everyone involved, but Southwick says it’s a comforting ritual as well. She’s inspired by the dancers, who treat each show as if it’s someone’s first time seeing the classic ballet — because it usually is. “Even if it’s their 40th time [performing it],” she says, “there are people in the audience seeing The Nutcracker for the first time ever.”

Behind the curtain, dancers and crew share Secret Santa gift exchanges, oodles of food, and occasional pranks. “The whole backstage is like a city that loves each other,” Southwick says, adding that she decorates the physical therapy room with holiday lights because people end up spending so much time there. “It helps us feel festive, because we’re in the basement.”

From her bedecked backstage bunker, Southwick occasionally does online shopping or writes out holiday cards. “But we have days where we’re so busy treating everyone and keeping everyone going, it’s like an athletic team . . . you’re trying to cheat normal recovery times.”

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When Southwick’s not at the Opera House — she can often leave after intermission, though she remains on call — she tries to focus on family traditions. In recent years, she and her husband, Bill, and their three children, aged 15 to 21, have volunteered at New Life Furniture Bank of Massachusetts, a nonprofit offering gently used furniture to people transitioning out of homelessness. They take part in a lot of other holiday traditions, too, from hanging lights to baking cookies — save one. “We don’t go see any other shows,” she says. “We save that for other times of the year. I’m a little theatered out, and my family is, too.”

And while the Nutcracker score stirs some warm feelings when rehearsals first start up in the fall, Southwick — who’s danced in the production as well — says that fuzzy feeling wears off fairly quickly after 22 years. By December, “Tchaikovsky’s not allowed to be played at our home ever, not at all,” she says. “If ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ comes on while I’m Christmas shopping, I have to leave the store. I can’t hear those notes anymore!”

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Niko Alexandrou
Brian and Lindsay O’Donovan of “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn.”

Brian O’Donovan

Host, A Christmas Celtic Sojourn

Despite a month of rehearsals and performances in five venues across New England, Brian O’Donovan says hosting A Christmas Celtic Sojourn is a lot like throwing a holiday party. “It’s become kind of a platform for us to have a Christmas gathering, but it’s just that 12,000 people come to it,” the longtime WGBH radio host says of the celebration of traditional Irish music and dance, now in its 16th year. “We look forward to it, as hectic as it is.”

“We” includes his wife, Lindsay, who not only helps organize the concerts but also joins in on piano and vocals. “It’s a family thing, definitely,” says O’Donovan, noting that over the years the show has also included two of his daughters, noted Americana songsmith Aoife and younger sibling Fionnuala, whose version of “In the Bleak Midwinter” is one of her dad’s favorite Christmas carols.

The crew and performers, some of whom are an ocean away from home until Christmas Eve, get to be pretty close-knit as well. “Right after the last show, we all gather for a wrap-up party, and that’s like a good old-fashioned Christmas party,” O’Donovan says. Then he and Lindsay board a Brooklyn-bound train to spend the rest of the holidays with their children, three of whom live in New York, and 1-year-old granddaughter.

“We try to find a church in Manhattan with a carol service on Christmas Eve, a carol sing — that’s our time to celebrate together,” O’Donovan says.

Candlelight carols, it turns out, are just a brief break from traditional Irish tunes. “You’d think we’d be burned out by then, but there’s a very special seisun [gathering] at the 11th St. Bar [in the East Village] on Sunday nights, and we always try to get there,” O’Donovan says.

One daughter hosts a big holiday gathering, and O’Donovan’s homemade trifle is a fixture at the feast. “A sherry-based trifle, in particular, is a very Irish thing, and Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas for us without that,” he says. Another favorite dessert is a well-traveled plum pudding, which O’Donovan’s sister makes and sends from Ireland’s County Clare every year. “That’s a family tradition that connects us across the water.”

Josie Wilton
Tony Williams of the “Urban Nutcracker” with son Alex and grandson Everett.

Tony Williams

Creator and choreographer, Urban Nutcracker

Tony Williams, creator and choreographer of the Urban Nutcracker— which blends ballet with hip-hop and other dance styles, injects a bit of Duke Ellington into Tchaikovsky’s classical score, and swaps Boston streets for the Bavarian forest — says he’s “sort of forfeited the Christmas season for the past 17 years.” Instead, he spends much of December in a steady state of worry.

“I don’t get to relax until the curtain comes up on the first show,” he says. “Most times during dress rehearsals there’s one disaster or another to deal with and you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, this show is going to go down the tubes.’ And every opening night the curtain goes up and it’s a miracle in a way; everything comes together and just jells, and the crowd applauds and the cast responds to that applause.”

When it’s your job to try to spark and maintain a holiday joy cyclone for two weeks straight, sometimes the best way to ensure that you see your loved ones is to get them involved in the show itself. This year, Williams is excited to share the season with his young grandson, who’s coming to Boston with his mom, a professional photographer. “I’ve hired [my daughter-in-law] to come do some behind-the-scenes photography, shooting the show,” he says. “And that’s great for the show, but it’s also another way to spend time with my grandson, because they live in Virginia.”

Still, Williams does get to enjoy Christmas on a brief break between shows. “Most years my sons come to the house [and] we just have a family Christmas,” he says, decorating the tree with all the ornaments they made as kids. Williams also has four sisters and four brothers in the Boston area — and so many nieces and nephews that he’s starting to lose count — so they’ll sometimes join the extended family at a sibling’s house.

The show’s cast is now a sprawling extended family of its own. When the Urban Nutcracker debuted at Dorchester’s Strand Theater in 2001, some of the youngest performers were just 7 or 8 years old, Williams says. “Those kids who were 8 are now pushing 30, so we have this huge family.”

The joy the production brings to the kids involved is a huge reason Williams keeps giving it his all. But there’s another reason, too: At this point, the show is Christmas for him. “My first Nutcracker was when I was 17 or 18 years old with the Boston Ballet, before they were a professional company — when it was New England Civic Ballet,” he says. In the 50 years since, he’s been involved in some form of the production every year — including Boston Ballet’s inaugural production, in 1965, with Arthur Fiedler conducting. Says Williams: “It’s hard for me to see myself not having a Tchaikovsky Nutcracker during Christmastime.”

Gretjen Helene Photography
Kim Mitchell at Boing!

Kim Mitchell

Owner, Boing! Toy Shop, Jamaica Plain

Perhaps no other small retailer experiences the festive frenzy of the holidays quite like the owner of a toy store. “We prepare all year for the month of December,” says Kim Mitchell, owner of Boing! Toy Shop in Jamaica Plain, noting that she insists on waiting until after Thanksgiving to decorate for the holidays. “[It’s] an extremely busy month at the store and at home. But without a doubt, it’s the most fun time as well.”

Then, at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Mitchell closes up shop and finally gets to relax. “That’s when I jump in the car to head to my brother’s for Christmas Eve dinner,” she says — though even at that late hour, she’s had to leave packages for last-minute shoppers.

Mitchell and her partner have a daughter, Riley, who had every child’s dream job when she was younger: toy tester. “We employed her services as a product tester quite a bit,” Mitchell recalls. “She’s getting a little older now, so the novelty of the toy store is definitely wearing off, sadly.”

Fortunately, the rush of the season still calls to Mitchell’s longtime employees, some of whom have been with her since she bought the store in 2011. “I think we all feel the same way — that the holidays are both a hectic but incredibly fun time of year at the store,” she says. “A six-hour shift can go by in what feels like two hours.”

That sounds like the one holiday tradition we’re all bound to experience, whether we want to or not: Wondering how it goes by so fast.

Get in the spirit 

 Boston Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker plays the Boston Opera House from November 29 through December 30. bostonballet.org/nutcracker

 The Holiday Pops take over Symphony Hall from December 6 to 31. bostonpops.org

 A Christmas Celtic Sojourn kicks off its season in Rockport on December 12, then plays Boston, Worcester, New Bedford, and Providence, and wraps up in Boston on December 23. wgbh.org/music/celtic

 The Urban Nutcracker lights up the Shubert Theatre from December 20 to 30. urbannutcracker.com

 Boing! Toy Shop is open daily. boingtoys.com

Jon Gorey is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.