With all the hubbub, stress and commercialism that come with the holidays, it is comforting that our favorite memories of the season are so much simpler: midnight Mass with the family. Trimming the tree. Christmas carols. Every clan has its customs. As such, we sought out some area residents to share their favorite holiday activities. Each was quite different, but in the end seemed somewhat similar. Our best moments, it seems, have little to do with what’s wrapped up under the tree and a lot to do with what’s wrapped up in our hearts.
By his own description, David Kirby is a conservative fellow. At age sixty-four, the New Canaan resident is an investment banker. When he rides the Metro-North train into Manhattan for work, he notices that he is among the few remaining commuters to wear a traditional white shirt and suit. So it’s understandable that friends raised an eyebrow last year when they heard that David, of all people, was visiting various homes around town before Christmas dressed like Santa Claus.
No one asked him to do it. He wasn’t representing any organization. David just wanted to bring back some of the holiday cheer that he remembered in New Canaan when his own children were small. “My husband has a great generosity of spirit,” says wife Rita. “I didn’t know how he would do in this Santa Claus persona. But he put on this costume and he became much more outgoing.”
David had been considering taking on the role for some time. Years ago, local denizen Peter Deane, who has since passed away, made the rounds as Santa. David and Rita have fond memories of Santa Deane greeting their first three children. (The Kirbys have four kids in all: Bradford, twenty-nine; Cameron, twenty-six; Amanda, twenty-two; and Annaliese, seventeen.)
“I’ve always thought of Peter and what he did, and I know the joy that he brought to both children and their parents,” says David. “As our children have gotten older I thought, ‘You know something? That ought to be continued.’ Then last year I decided I would continue the tradition that Peter Deane began.”
David called some neighbors who had youngsters and asked if they might enjoy a visit from Father Christmas. When they assured him that they would, he rented a Santa outfit from a costume shop in Greenwich. He also brought some red material and gold-braided rope to a tailor and had him fashion a bag. Then, with the help of the staff at the New Canaan Toy Store, he rounded up a load of small, age-appropriate gifts. (Webkinz pets and Lego toys, he found, were all the rage with the short-pants set.)
About a week before Christmas, with some extra padding around his midsection, David began paying his visits. In lieu of reindeer, Rita ferried him about town in her Mercedes-Benz. And while parents knew what night he was coming, Rita would phone when they were on their way. Then she parked out of sight, often along the roadside, while Santa gathered his bag and trekked up the driveway.
“Sometimes as I was stepping out of the car or walking in the street, cars would drive by and I’d get a little wave or a honk on the horn and people would roll the window down and call out, ‘Hi, Santa,’” David recalls.
But the best reaction came from the children he visited, most of whom could hardly contain themselves. “The kids were just wide-eyed,” David says. “Some of them were so excited they started running around the house and they couldn’t stop. Others stood there speechless with eyes as big as saucers.”
Knowing that Santa was on his way, neighbor Dionna Carlson had her kids, Lauren and Grant, then seven and six, situated so that they could spot him when he arrived. “We were reading upstairs in a bedroom that has a window overlooking the driveway,” she says. “They saw him coming up the driveway and were kind of stunned.”
In all, David visited nineteen families, and thirty-seven children, over five nights. Despite one would-be debunker who yanked off Santa’s hat and hair, he was a hit everywhere he went. So much so that parents urged him to visit other families they knew, and the list contined to grow. “I just kept calling more and more people until quite frankly, I ran out of time,” David says. “I had to get back to the North Pole.”
But a tradition had been born, or at least reborn. Not long ago, David purchased his own Santa Claus outfit. And this Christmas he expects to call on twice as many families, including Peter Deane’s own grandchildren, over ten nights. “For me, it was much more enjoyable, better than I ever conceived it would be,” he says. “I decided that I’m going to do it for as many years as I can. It’s a Christmas present from me to me.” »
For Susan Ballard, volunteering has long been a part of her life. She has been active over the years with OPUS for Person-to-Person, which provides fundraising and other support for Person-to-Person, the Darien-based social services agency. But a couple of years ago, this mother of three began to feel that the time she was spending on volunteer work was pulling her away from the people who meant the most to her.
“I decided that if I’m going to continue with my volunteerism, I want it to be integral with my family,” she says. “So I talked with my husband. I said: ‘It’s Christmastime, and I really think we should all be doing this together.’ I wasn’t sure what reaction I was going to get, but he jumped right in.”
As a result, the Ballards and their children (J.D., now fifteen; Craig, twelve; and Paige, ten) signed on to do some of the grunt work behind Person-to-Person’s popular Christmas Toy Store, which provides children’s gifts and food to area families in need. After all the feel-good work of handing out presents from the makeshift “shop” in the parish hall of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church was over, the Ballards rolled in and helped tear it all down, carrying boxes, moving tables and restoring the space to normal.
“It’s a big job,” says Susan, who lives in Darien. “But I felt that it’s a very good experience for the kids, because they get to see the work that goes behind it. To really touch people takes hard work sometimes.”
The toy store is one of the agency’s most heart-warming efforts. Parents come in and are presented with a large selection of gifts to choose from, depending on the gender and age of their children. Last year, 1,928 youngsters received a toy and a book.
Needless to say, both givers and receivers often come away misty-eyed. Susan knows because she has volunteered in that part of the process as well. “It’s just a lovely, happy experience to guide people through the toy store and to talk with them about their children,” she says. “You see their eyes shine when they talk about their kids.
“Some come in and they’re nothing but happy. They know what this is all about. They’ve been here before. But then there are others who are apprehensive. It’s like a little disbelief, like ‘I can have that big red fire truck for my two-year-old?’ Then they have this big, beautiful, wrapped present and they’re ready to walk out the door, and you say, ‘No, no, come on over here, you can take a book for your child too.’
“And then, just when they think they’re leaving, they’re given a bag of food and their faces brighten up even more.” Son J.D., using his middle-school Spanish, has also helped guide parents through the store, at least a bit. Susan’s other children, meanwhile, have kept clients’ kids entertained in the waiting area.
It can be difficult to pull a family together for a shared experience, especially around Christmas. But Susan knows that her kids are coming away the better for it. “It makes them much more appreciative of all that they have, particularly at this time of year,” she says. “The holidays should be about bringing people together and sharing. It’s not about the gifts — ironically, in this case it is about the gifts — but it makes you appreciate sharing with others.”
Most of the year, Amy Wilkinson is a private banker in the wealth management section of a major financial institution. On Christmas day she waits tables. But then, so do her husband and kids. You’ll find the Rowayton family taking orders at the Roger Sherman Inn, along with other would-be moonlighters from the Rotary Club of New Canaan, working to raise money for charity.
For five years now, the New Canaan restaurant has been open to customers for Christmas dinner, with net proceeds going to the New Canaan Rotary’s chosen international causes. And though the inn’s chef and some key members of the waitstaff report for duty to guarantee the quality of the food and service, the bulk of the labor is provided by Rotarians and their families, who do everything from checking coats to serving guests to washing dishes.
“We participate in virtually every step of putting that meal on the table,” says Amy. “The little ones bring the bread around. They pour the water at the tables. We have bartenders. We have people who take and fill drink orders. We have waiters and waitresses. We prepare the salads and soups and desserts. We work in the kitchen, actually setting the food out on the plates.”
Last year the Wilkinsons took part for the first time. Amy and daughter Ariana, now nineteen, worked as servers for multiple tables in one section, handling about thirty customers. Husband Bruce, a marketing executive, and son David, twenty-one, were responsible for a table of sixteen in another room.
“It was hard work,” says Amy, who had never waitressed before. “And we realized that there are some real tricks to the trade.” To keep track of who ordered what, for example, Amy and company were taught to take orders at a given table starting with the patron seated nearest the kitchen door and then work clockwise around the table.
For folks looking to dine out on Christmas, it’s nice to have the restaurant open, even if it is staffed — for the day at least — by amateurs. Customers get a good meal and in the process contribute to a good cause. Many enjoy seeing children helping out as well, whether the kids are working the cloak-room or refilling the butter dishes. “It actually adds to the unique Christmas experience,” says Scott Hobbs, a Rotary member from New Canaan whose twins Jack and Charlie, age nine, helped last year. “Our service I’m sure is not quite up to the normal standard, but you get a little bit of a family feel to it.”
For the Rotarians, there’s a spirit of camaraderie that comes in tackling the work of a bustling restaurant. Not to mention the personal rewards. “One of the members mentioned that his teenage son thought it was lunacy when it was first brought up that the family work at the restaurant on Christmas,” notes Scott. “Then by the fourth year, when he was coming back from college, he was saying, ‘We’re going to go do the Rotary thing on Christmas, aren’t we?’”
In 2006 the Rotary raised nearly $5,500. Although the club has yet to determine this year’s recipients, last year’s funds went to the Halo Trust, the British mine-clearing group that Princess Diana supported, as well as school projects in Afghanistan and Kenya.
“It’s a day to give,” says Amy. “And this provides a perfect opportunity to do more than simply give a gift.”