In Danny Bernardy's San Diego childhood home, Christmas started the day after Thanksgiving and continued through the New Year. Decorations throughout the house, Elvis Presley CDs blaring and a turkey in the oven were just a fraction of his family's tradition.
With a mother still "really into decking the halls" and two sisters, like Bernardy, in their 30s and unmarried, not much has changed over the years.
"The holidays have remained frighteningly similar to our childhood, we just get up a little later now," says the actor, whose role was once as the "Paul Revere" who rousted everyone out of bed early Christmas morning. "It's always been a special time and very important to us."
But this year, for only the second time in his 32 years, Bernardy will not be in California with his family on Dec. 25, but rather on the Florida Studio Theatre stage for two performances of "Spamalot." He is one of a number of out-of-town performers, many of them more accustomed to the white Christmases of the north, who will be celebrating the holidays in the sunny warmth of Sarasota — in temporary bungalows, condos or hotel rooms and with make-shift decorations, potluck meals and substitute loved ones.
Though far from the familiar, they are drawing from their own religious, cultural and familial roots to create a patchwork home-away-from-home for the holidays.
The "subtle Irish-Catholic guilt" laid on by Bernardy's mother has been countered by the anticipation of sharing some haphazard but heartfelt new traditions with the 15 other members of the tight-knit cast.
"I would love to be in two places at once," says Bernardy. "But in this wacky theater world we live in, our little tribe becomes our family. You become extremely close, both through the work and for emotional support."
Gil Brady, one of Bernardy's closest castmates, comes from a Roman Catholic family that sounds a lot like the television bunch that bore his last name — albeit on a smaller scale. His parents and three older siblings — a brother and two sisters — have a musical reputation in their New Jersey town not unlike the Von Trapps of "Sound of Music" fame.
For years they've eaten a huge Christmas Eve feast together at a lavish restaurant, sung at midnight mass, awoken to fresh monkey bread baked by his sister, rushed back to church to sing again at noon and ended the day around a laden dinner table with a considerable cluster of family members and "stragglers."
But last year, after hearing the dickering amongst inlaws for his married siblings' presence and watching the chaos as his seven nieces and nephews tore into Christmas wrappings, Brady remembers thinking, "If I get a job next year for this time spot, I think I'll take it."
His wish was granted and now he's now plunged into creating his own holiday frenzy, scrambling to mail gifts back home, buying a wreath, ordering pies from Yoder's for a between-performance cast meal and looking for the perfect gift for the "White Elephant" exchange the actors are planning, where each person supplies a single silly or serious present for barter.
In the upstairs apartment of the duplex Brady shares with another actor, Samantha Mills, 27, and Jake, her husband of two years — both also "Spamalot" cast members — they have put up a tree, throwing financial caution to the wind to spring for a live one with lights and color-coordinated decorations. It will serve as the gathering spot for the cast members between the Christmas Day shows.
Mills grew up in Yorktown, Va., where Christmas Eve was always celebrated at her grandmother's with an elaborate present-opening ritual that may have honed her acting skills.
"Each person opened a gift, one by one, with everyone watching you," she says. "It was a lot of pressure to like what you're getting — or at least look like you did."
Two years ago, her first holiday away from home and as part of a married couple living in New York was hard on her; now, she says, her absence is harder on family members than herself.
"I can hear it in their phone calls," she says. "Jake is my home now, but they're missing something."
She's already begun to create her own traditions with her husband. But what she misses most — and can't replicate in Florida — are the colder temperatures and "the smell of snow." Neither she nor Jake are beach people — "We only go at sunset, and fully clothed" — and the other day, when she passed by the smell of woodsmoke, she thought to herself, "If it was only cold this would smell like Christmas."
Still, she's looking forward to providing a sense of warmth and hominess for her fellow cast members, especially those who are here solo.
"Jake and I, as a couple, are a family, so I think we'll always be the people who take other people in and try to make a warm environment," she says.
Other actors are importing their own form of warmth — physical and emotional. Andrew Sellon's partner of 20 years — and husband of one — Tim Sheahan, will celebrate Christmas Day with his own extended Irish family in New York, then board a plane to join Sellon in Sarasota for a post-Christmas week.
Sellon, who is here for the next five months and three shows at the Asolo Repertory Theatre — "Philadelphia, Here I Come," "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," and "The Grapes of Wrath" — is used to a "traditional Northeastern Christmas." He and Sheahan typically host a huge holiday party in their renovated 1906 home, for which he always makes a curried peanut butter/squash soup, "Lumberjack" cookies dipped in white chocolate and a layered trifle.
The sting of forgoing the party and living in the Marriott Residence Inn instead is assuaged by the Facetime he shares with Sheahan every night, the fact he is "thrilled to be here and doing these roles" and his complete delight at escaping the frigid temperatures back home.
"To be honest with you, my thrill is to be laying by the pool Christmas Day studying my lines," he says. "To a certain extent, Christmas is where your loved ones are. And one of the magic things about theater is that it's instant family, wherever you go."
Like Sellon, Bernard Balbot, also performing in "Philadephia, Here I Come" at the Asolo, will import a little cheer for the holiday. His girlfriend, Claire Willin, currently in a national tour of "Once," will fly in on the 24th and leave the 26th. In her honor, Balbot, who attended Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah and was confirmed in 10th grade has, for the first time in his life, purchased a 3 1/2-foot Christmas tree and collected sand to serve as its Florida-inspired base.
"I grew up with Hannukah, potato latkes and going to a movie and eating Chinese food on Christmas because those were the only places that were open," says Balbot, 27, who grew up in Pittsburgh but has lived in Chicago for the past four years.
In fact, when he was performing here last year through Dec. 24, he and a costume supervisor at the Asolo made dozens of latkes on a hot plate for the cast, filling the backstage area with the smell of deep fry oil.
His tree purchase this year, however, did not sit well with his mother, who responded with "a painful silence" when he told her about it over the phone. A district attorney, she later conceded to his argument that it was "less about the birth of Christ than about not forcing someone else to give up their own traditions."
"We let our hearts and minds lead us to something new and authentic," he says. "But it doesn't negate your roots."
His tree is decorated with the blue and silver lights of Hannukah and while potatoes will be on the menu he and Willin have been planning for three weeks during nightly Skype sessions, they will be fingerlings, not latkes. The couple plan to finish the holiday on the couch, watching "It's a Wonderful Life" which, surprisingly, Willin has never seen.
When these actors' runs are over — anywhere from mid-January to April — they return to their respective homefronts, often leaving behind the traces of their holiday cheer. When Bernardy was here for a play last summer, he looked in the closet of his rented apartment and found the remains of an artificial Christmas tree, left behind by another actor, in the closet. His contribution this year will be the $3 string of lights he bought at Target.
"It sounds cheesy," says Brady, "but you recognize we could all be alone and this is a time for togetherness. You make do with what you've got."
For all of these actors, their work, their location and their acquaintances are, at least temporarily, altering their sense of what makes for a happy holiday.
"It's redefining it on your own terms while maintaining tradition and family connections," says Balbot. "It's more difficult, because you can't rely on a template. But you can appreciate it more because you have reasons for doing everything you choose."