Out-of-the-ordinary Christmas traditions

These folks put their own stamps on the holidays
The "12 Days of Christmas" glasses that Saratoga Springs resident Jeannette Neville puts out at the dinner table each year.
The "12 Days of Christmas" glasses that Saratoga Springs resident Jeannette Neville puts out at the dinner table each year.

Jeannette Neville always gets a big crowd on Christmas Eve.

About a dozen relatives will have seats at the dining room table for the usual fish and macaroni dinner.

Other guests will make appearances later at the Saratoga Springs residence — dancing ladies, drummers, pipers, swimming swans, French hens, leaping lords. And that’s just the half of it.

Neville’s full house is part of a unique tradition built around “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” a holiday song that dates to the late 1700s. The Neville family doesn’t sing for its supper — it sings after supper.

Everyone gets a glass printed with laying geese, calling birds, milking maids (among others) and corresponding lyrics — part of a vintage set from Lillian Vernon. Once Neville starts with the traditional “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me ” ” the chorus begins the night’s funniest segment.

“They all laugh at me when I make them do it,” Neville said of her children, “but then they get into it, and any relatives we have, aunts or uncles, even my neighbors came over one year, and they got into it. They all look forward to it every year.”

Neville has her favorite song, and so does Jen Kuzmich of Greenwich — who makes “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” a Christmas Eve tradition. Kuzmich performs a private serenade in a very unusual place for her special holiday custom.

Some holiday traditions seem unique or unusual to the non-initiated. The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American celebration of Christmas Eve. And the idea of people leaving their homes for a church service in the middle of the night seems like an odd thing to do ” but midnight Mass happens once a year.

There are strange traditions around the world. Among them:

* In Austria, children who have been naughty fear Krampus, the Christmas demon. While St. Nicholas rewards the good kids, Krampus punishes misbehavers.

* There is no house cleaning in Norway on Christmas Eve. All brooms are hidden away to prevent theft by witches and evil spirits.

* Germans hide a pickle in their Christmas trees on Christmas Eve. The child who discovers the pickle on Christmas morning receives a gift.

* Italian children do not have Santa Claus. In Italy, the friendly witch Befana delivers candy and toys on Jan. 5.

* In Finland, families mark Christmas by lighting candles at the graves of their departed loved ones.

In Albany and other cities around the United States, “SantaCon” pub crawls have become popular ways for people to ring in the holiday season. Large groups of men and women, dressed in the crimson and white costume of Santa Claus, will walk from bar to bar, spreading cheer and drinking spirits.

Neville prefers her tradition. She said it’s been happening in Saratoga Springs for the past 35 years or so, ever since her mother, Henrietta Murphy, gave her the Christmas glasses as a gift.

“We usually have at least 12,” Neville said of the Dec. 24 dinner guests. “If we have more, we share the glasses. If we have less, then we double up.”

The glasses are filled with water. Once the song starts, people have to wait their turns to chime in with lines such as “seven swans a-swimming,” “eight maids a-milking” and “nine ladies dancing.”

“It has to go backward,” Neville said, and she’s right. Anyone who knows the song knows that once a new “gift” is introduced, the preceding “gifts” are repeated.

“That’s where it gets funny,” Neville added. “People can’t remember their parts. It’s like, ‘No, it’s you, it’s you, it’s you!’ “

Nobody wants the 11th glass. Neville said 11 pipers piping are just considered too boring by the family singers. The “partridge” glass is OK, because “A partridge in a pear tree” is easy to remember and easy to sing.

Everyone wants to be the fifth singer — “five gold rings” or sometimes “five golden rings” is a line people can have fun with.

“They’ll do a different version every time,” Neville said. “They’ll sing it, they’ll say it, just have a good time with it.”

Neville’s daughter Amanda Lansing is part of the chorus. Lansing, who lives in Marlboro, Massachusetts, said the glasses can be hard to read. So reading glasses are often on the table after dinner.

“People like to complain that they have to sing,” Lansing said. “But if we didn’t do it, everyone would be upset.”

A pecking order has developed. “If you get the last day, you only have to sing once,” Lansing said. “We usually make the new people get the low numbers, so they have to sing more than anyone else.”

Neville puts away the glasses after Christmas. She doesn’t want to risk breaking a single glass ” which could cause a break in tradition.

If people visit Greenwich Cemetery at the right time on Christmas Eve, they will see a tall, blonde-haired woman singing near a pair of gravestones.

Jen Kuzmich stages her personal performance once a year: She sings “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” at the spots where Kim Gannon (real name James Kimball Gannon) and his wife Norma are buried. Gannon wrote the song during the early 1940s, and it became a favorite of men and women fighting overseas in World War II.

“I haven’t done it my whole life,” Kuzmich said. “I probably started visiting the cemetery on a more regular basis once my dad passed away around 1980.”

The Gannons — with wreaths carved into their stones — are buried near Kuzmich’s family plot, and the couple knew Jen’s grandparents. Kuzmich never knew Gannon, who was 73 when he died in Lake Worth, Florida, in 1974.

“His wife was always really good to me,” Kuzmich said of Norma, who passed away in 2000. “They were these great philanthropists to the people of Greenwich in a variety of ways. To me, that song is Christmas in Greenwich. I picture all these soldier boys in World War II hearing this song and thinking of Greenwich.”

The Christmas Eve visit is not so much a homage to Gannon, Kuzmich said. “It’s kind of like a homage to the feeling of being part of Greenwich,” she said, adding that the song makes her think about the small-town life in the small town.

“I really have a dedication and an investment in Greenwich,” she added.

“This song is really about Greenwich and how we take care of each other.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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