The magic started well before the ballet dancers took the stage at the Nutcracker Tea on Sunday at the Hall of Springs.
You could feel it as the children paraded into the first of two sold-out seatings, dressed in their holiday finest. They exclaimed over the two-tiered tray of cookies and mini muffins at the center of each dining table and eagerly reached for the platters of crustless finger sandwiches. They ripped wrappers from what were likely the first candy canes of the season and sucked the red stripes from them with obvious delight.
A Capital Region tradition for nearly 25 years, the Nutcracker Tea sold out about five minutes after tickets went on sale, said Saratoga Performing Arts Center spokeswoman Shane Williams-Ness.
“This is one of the best loved events of the holiday season that SPAC’s Action Council — SPAC’s largest fundraising arm — presents,” she said. “It’s sort of the kickoff of the season.”
The tea was sponsored by The Albany Academies, and proceeds from it help fund SPAC’s performing arts education programs.
About 375 patrons — a good number of them younger than 10 — turned out at 11 a.m. Sunday to sip tea, shop and watch performers from the Northeast Ballet Company put on an abbreviated version of “The Nutcracker.” The second performance of the day drew a similar-sized crowd.
Alysa Arnold of Saratoga Springs smiled as her daughters, Virginia, 6, and Eleanor, 4, carefully spooned a whole bunch of sugar cubes onto little plates next to their teacups during Sunday’s first session.
“It’s just a really nice way to sort of kick off the holiday season. It’s just a really sweet event,” she said.
Liliana Swits, 6, of Saratoga Springs, was dressed to the nines and clutched a pink stuffed pony and a pink-and-blue magic wand near a vendor table during the tea.
“We already have 15 wands and 500 ponies,” her mother, Holly, lamented.
But Liliana had already named the pony Pinky, and it seemed pretty certain the Swits residence would soon house 501 ponies and 16 magic wands.
Liliana dances with the Northeast Ballet Company, but she’s only in the “Nutcracker” performance the dance troupe puts on at Proctors, so Sunday was about enjoying the spectacle and, of course, shopping.
In addition to stuffed ponies and wands, there were Christmas storybooks for sale, along with T-shirts, doll clothes and jewelry.
Boys were in the minority at the tea, but 10-year-old Gabe Lucarelli of Schodack was there, looking dashing in a gold tie, red shirt and black vest.
His said his favorite part of the Nutcracker is when the narrator tells the story.
“I also like [being in] pictures, because I look very good in pictures,” he added.
It’s an annual tradition to have a family Christmas picture taken at the Nutcracker Tea, said his mom, Debra Young, who has her own reasons for liking the event.
“What I like about it is you get the flavor of ‘The Nutcracker’ without having to sit through the whole performance,” she said.
Children gathered around the stage as showtime drew near, sitting cross-legged in rows.
The chattering crowd fell silent as the dancers took to the stage, twirling beside a Christmas tree ablaze with white lights.
Most of the children sat entranced as the story of Clara and her nutcracker prince came to life. But out in the lobby, a 1-year-old boy too restless to sit with the others gazed in awe at a white Christmas tree decorated with fancy ballet shoes — a tree many people barely seemed to notice in their rush to the ballroom. He reached out a tentative hand to touch the long needles and smiled, seeming content to bask in this overlooked bit of holiday magic.