Generations of D'Antuonos keep their date with St. Nick

Santa's loyal crowd

December 20, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,Special to the Sun

"Did you get a ticket for Aunt Carmela?" Mike D'Antuono asked his wife, Beryl, as they gathered in The Other Barn in Oakland Mills for their annual breakfast with Santa. "She's on her way."

"She is? So that's 19," Beryl said.

The number wasn't unusual for the D'Antuono family, and the tickets had, in fact, been purchased.

Each year, as many as four generations of D'Antuonos celebrate the season by visiting Santa at the village center. The children -- and sometimes the parents and grandparents -- sit on his red-suited knee and whisper their holiday wishes in his ear. Then they smile for a photo.

This year, the D'Antuono celebrants ranged in age from Carmela D'Antuono, the matriarch of the family, who is 90, to her great-granddaughter Aubrey Hines, 6 months old. "We're Santa groupies," said Mike D'Antuono.

And not just any Santa will do. The Santa at the center of the D'Antuono family tradition is Tom Brzezinski, media specialist at Clemens Crossing Elementary School, who has been ho-ho-ho'ing through December in the guise of Santa for more than 30 years.

His Jolly St. Nicholas debut was in 1975 at Wilde Lake Village Center, and he now plays the role of Santa at several village centers, as well as at functions for friends and family. He estimates he dons his red suit and long white beard about 20 times each December, and listens to holiday wish lists from hundreds, maybe even thousands, of children.

"With a lot of these kids, there's a history I have of them," he said. "It brings back a lot of happy memories."

Many of those youngsters are now the second generation to visit him. But the D'Antuonos have a special place in his heart. He has known Mike D'Antuono, who lives in Columbia, for decades, since their days of teaching together at Clemens Crossing. "Their son, Vincente, who has children of his own, he's been on my knee since 1980," Brzezinski said.

Brzezinski said kids generally believe in Santa until about sixth grade. He has a few tricks up his red felt sleeve for keeping that true-believer sparkle in kids' eyes as long as possible. Since he's a 42-year veteran of the Howard County school system, he can slip in little details that makes it seem he's really been watching those children when they're asleep and awake and really knows if they've been naughty or nice.

He can name the art teacher of a specific school, for example, and compliment a child on a particular project that he knows took place.

The D'Antuonos grew up in Silver Spring, where Carmela D'Antuono and one of her daughters, Connie Dwyer, still live.

Carmela has six children, all of whom live in Maryland. With such a large and close-knit family, holiday celebrations seem to last all month. A tree is admired, a huge meal is served, and then it's on to another event a few days later.

"The holidays for our family are like one party after another," Mike D'Antuono said.

"It's an eat-a-thon," his sister Connie agreed.

Santa's breakfast is just one small part of the whirl of holiday activities. Over the years, family members visited this Santa at different locations, said Beryl, but finally, about 10 years ago, the tradition was cemented.

"We all kind of gravitated back to Oakland Mills," she said.

Having an "in" with Santa can have its advantages. Some years, Santa has been known to flourish a letter written by one of the children and sent to the North Pole. Eyes widen when the kids see that Santa really received it.

Oakland Mills has been hosting a breakfast with Santa for about 25 years, said Sandy Cederbaum, the village manager.

There are two seatings, each with capacity for about 65 people. For $4.50, participants get breakfast, a photo with Santa and all the time they need to talk to the man in the red suit. Holiday-themed crafts and cartoons round out the festivities.

The D'Antuonos aren't the only family that has made breakfast with Santa a holiday tradition for three years now. On Saturday, the Proctors of Columbia boasted about 15 members, including tiny Kendrick, 13 weeks old. Four-year-old Keenan Proctor planned to ask for a Baby Alive doll, a My Little Pony Castle and Twelve Dancing Princesses Barbie, she said.

"It's just nice because we can get together with friends," said Jennifer Proctor.

"We watched these kids grow up," said Susan Azoulay, event and facility coordinator for the Oakland Mills Community Association.

"He's just amazing," she said of Brzezinski. "He knows them and he remembers them. He's really Santa, I believe." During last week's breakfast, the D'Antuonos took up two tables. Connie Dwyer drove from Silver Spring, even though her own son didn't go.

"My son's like 30," she said. "I'm here as the aunt, to take pictures." Carmela Grove, another sibling, was also in attendance.

Mike and Beryl D'Antuono were there with two of their children, Cassandra, who lives in Essex, and Vincente, who lives in Columbia. Add spouses and kids, and the group gets large quickly.

As the kids ran around and the adults snapped photos, Carmela D'Antuono couldn't stop smiling.

"I love to be with my children," she said. "There's nothing like family. I love them all. They're all so beautiful."

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