It's Christmas time in the City
Growing up in New England, where every December delivered on its promise of a white-frosted Currier & Ives Christmas, I became something of a yule snob. Whilst the holiday was said to exist in other places, I was certain it existed nowhere else as splendidly as it did in Olde New England.
I moved to New York City in 1980, and in my very first December there I learned that my cocksurety about the superiority of the New England Christmas was humbug. Even though the seasonal nip in Manhattan's air is not quite as nippy as Boston's, and even though Gotham often gets no snow before New Year's Eve, Christmas in New York represents the quintessence of the urban Christmas experience.
If you've never enjoyed the holiday season in New York, you have missed something wonderful. The always-luminous town is a-twinkle with light from early dusk to late dawn; the always-musical town moves to a sprightly, continuous carol: Silver bells, silver bells, it's Christmas time in the city.
In looking back over nearly two dozen Decembers in the Apple, I find it hard to choose my favorite Christmas traditions, so I'll start at the beginning: Each year, the kickoff event of New York's Christmas season is Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. It's now 75 editions old but looking none the worse for wear.
There were no big balloons in the first parade; in fact, the sole constants have been floats and the notion that the event heralds the coming of Christmas. Santa Claus has long been the biggest star of the "Macy's Day" Parade; his arrival at Herald Square remains its climax. In recent years, the parade has been getting ever more telegenic, with production numbers from Broadway shows and other entertainments staged in front of Macy's flagship store. So go to the square and go early.
Macy's also has windows, and during the holidays the Macy's elves build marvelous, festive scenes inside the glass. After the parade passes by, linger in Herald Square and enjoy what is just about always a family-oriented display. Other windows worth seeking out include the ones at Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue; Saks Fifth Avenue, up the boulevard at 49th Street; and Barney's on Madison Avenue. The curtains go up on many of the displays in mid-November, in anticipation of the Turkey Day hordes. Finally, regarding the windows: While they are a nice bit of civic altruism in the form of free sidewalk entertainment, they do have an ulterior purpose: to lure you inside the store.
Let the windows do their job, for the best department stores are just as gussied up inside as out. Shopping at Macy's will be raucous, at Lord & Taylor and Saks it will be swank, and at Barney's it will be swell, with everything from high-end crystal to designer cashmere suits singing siren songs to your wallet.
Many of the most famous stores in the world are represented either on Madison Avenue, on Fifth Avenue, or along 57th Street. And of the rest—particularly the hip stores—most have outposts downtown.
Fifth Avenue from Washington Square Park north to Madison Square Park has become a trendy place to shop. You can find everything from the Gap to Paul Smith in the neighborhood.
SoHo (south of Houston Street), too, keeps landing more of-the-moment retailers and sleek hotels and bars. Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade likes to think of itself as New York City's most hallowed and longest-lived holiday tradition, but it isn't. Shopping is.
Now, if you are not in New York on Thanksgiving morning but are planning a holiday season trip, watch the parade on television to whet your appetite. Next, get on the horn and line up your tickets for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Maybe you've already seen one of its several road shows in a city near you. Undoubtedly it was a terrific production, but they can't ship the Music Hall itself, and, since its renovation in the '90s, this palace in Midtown is as much a part of the spectacle as the Spectacular itself.
When my 4-year-old, Caroline, trod the plush carpet and beheld the soaring, gilded walls for the first time last year, she ooohed and aaahed in o'erflowing measure. The show itself held her attention throughout—and mine as well. It is well paced, melodic, and, to a child, magical. Its tableau, The Living Nativity, entranced my daughter. Afterward, we went to see the skaters and Christmas tree across the street in Rockefeller Plaza.
Rockefeller Center had its first formal tree lighting in 1933, even before the complex was finished. That first tree carried 700 lights. Today, a king-size Norway spruce creates a dazzling scene with some 30,000 lights stretched out on five miles of wire.
You can rent skates here and join the throng going round and round as seasonal music fills the air. A terrible skater, I have done it only once but can attest that it delivers a Hall of Fame holiday kick (as I imagine skating at Wollman Rink in Central Park does, too). Caroline decided not to venture out on the ice— "Maybe next year—when I'm 5"—but even without that, and even eschewing milk and tea at the Plaza, ours was a perfect afternoon in the city.
There is now a rival annual holiday show you can see down at Madison Square Garden, a musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol. I've seen it twice and enjoyed it both times, not the least for the Victoriana that decorates the entire hall. The show, with a solid Broadway score as its bedrock, improves with a good Scrooge. Last year, Tim Curry was frightfully wonderful in the part. This year, F. Murray Abraham will fill the role.
While we're on the subject of shows, we should go no further before dealing with the Nutcrackers. Since this is New York, there is a heavenly host of versions of Tchaikovsky's classic ballet. I can confirm, based upon close observation of Caroline at the New York City Ballet production at the New York State Theater, that a full presentation of this ballet is able to hold even a 4-year-old child rapt for an entire performance.
And certainly there is no higher-quality production anywhere than City Ballet's, with its lovely Balanchine choreography, never improved upon since 1954, and its magnificent sets and one-ton tree growing 28 feet in 60 seconds, then sailing off toward skies unknown. It is a thrilling show for both young and old.
Caroline gave this performance her enthusiastic thumbs-up. "I think that was better than my Barbie Nutcracker video," she said thoughtfully. "The music was about the same. The dancing was better."
Although the City Ballet does present the essential Nutcracker, there are other terrific ones around town. One excellent example is modern dance choreographer Mark Morris's frothier The Hard Nut. It alights at the Brooklyn Academy of Music December 17-22, and is tremendously inventive and sensational fun.
There's inevitably an adaptation of The Gift of the Magi at one small theater or another. Or perhaps you would rather have a hot toddy at Pete's Tavern, off Irving Place, the spot where O. Henry purportedly wrote his Christmas classic.
If offbeat is off your beaten path, 20 or more Messiahs can be booked well in advance. They're all good. Musica Sacra's annual pilgrimage to Carnegie Hall (December 18 this year) is famous, as is that of the Masterwork Chorus and Orchestra (December 14). These are the two Carnegie heavyweights.
When we lived in town, my wife, Luci, and I were downtowners and we always had a favorite Messiah. It was done once each year as a Sunday matinee at Trinity Church on Broadway by the Trinity choir accompanied by an ensemble of period instruments known as the Rebel (it's pronounced re-BELL) Baroque Orchestra.
Excerpts from Messiah were first performed at Trinity in 1770, and so despite the assertions by Boston's Handel & Haydn Society, which presented the oratorio in its entirety in 1818, Trinity has a rightful claim to presenting the oldest Messiah in the United States. But it certainly looked as though this grand tradition would come to an end last Christmas.
Although Trinity had been spared destruction in the attacks of September 11, the church was still pulling itself from the rubble in December. Then a New York radio station stepped up to underwrite the performance, and Messiah was sung once more. Owen Burdick, music director of Trinity, noted that the work was, in fact, created as an Easter piece. "A lot of it," Burdick said last winter, "is about a phoenix rising from the ashes. We had to do it this year."
Music, as the Bard suggested, may be the food of love, but your stomach will crave something culinary as well. If you're any kind of romantic, you must have a cocktail, at the least, at Aaron Burr's old coach house— now a restaurant called One If By Land, Two If By Sea. It's located in the Village on Barrow Street, which might be hard to find. Best to take a cab. Piano music and a blazing fire warm the intimate bar. If you stay for a pricey dinner in the equally romantic restaurant, then order, in this season, the house specialty: beef Wellington.
Tavern on the Green, a glittering Christmas bauble all year long, is never a more festive place to dine than in December. But our favorite of favorites, either for Christmas or Valentine's Day, was always Café de Bruxelles, a Belgian purveyor of carbohydrates long before those became the fashion. Fries in stainless steel cups, brews handmade by dedicated monks, fish stews, and meats hearty enough to ward off any chill are the fuel of this Greenwich Avenue restaurant's considerable fire.
A little farther uptown and several blocks east you'll find Rolf's Bar & Restaurant, a Gramercy neighborhood German establishment that changes its decorative theme with the seasons. Being in Rolf's in December has been likened to being inside a Christmas tree. If you want to dine famously, choose Danny Meyer's Gramercy Tavern, if you can possibly get in. It is elegantly rustic and the food's superb.
Hunger sated, head to the Symphony Space, where the Christmas Revels is presented December 13 through 15. The Revels is, and has been for decades, a party, a pageant, a play, a wholesome debauch. A mixed bag of song, dance, and playacting, the Revels will be performed for the most part by extremely talented amateurs. But the event's a hoot and fun for the whole family.
Farther north: If there is such a thing as a secular holiday concert held in a church, then it must be Paul Winter's annual three-day engagement at the enormous, Gothic Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Harlem. Winter is a jazzman and a New Age musician with classical leanings. He is, as well, an environmentalist. His fans appear to be better dressed than Deadheads but just as fanatical, and they flock in the proper seasons to Winter's celebrations of the solstices.
As fall turns to Winter, his exceptional sax playing is decorated with nature sounds such as his signature wolf howls, and with wind rushes and contributions from enthusiasts in the audience. You have to experience Winter to experience winter.
And even farther north now, to the Bronx, for a last couple of yule time gems: The special seasonal events at the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo inspire just the type of precious holiday memories any parent would wish to bequeath to a child. At the 250-acre Botanical Garden, which is lovely in any season, the Holiday Garden and Train Show features a multitude of lights in and around the nation's largest and most glorious Victorian glasshouse. Model trains wind through fanciful winter landscapes dotted with replicas of city landmarks.
The display impressed Caroline mightily. She did not want to leave—"It's like being in a magic castle"—but it was getting dark, and Luci and I convinced her that we needed to cross the street to the zoo, just opening for its nightly edition of the Holiday Lights display. As Caroline gazed at the leaping frogs, a-sparkle against the sky, was she thinking, perhaps, that her parents weren't so dumb after all? "Even better than the trains," she said, wiping her tired eyes.
And so, for us, it was homeward bound—north to Westchester County, leaving the Apple in our rearview mirror. Caroline was asleep, and Ma in her kerchief and Pa in his cap were well and truly beat.
Up the exit ramp into our suburban town we went, then up the driveway—a dusting of snow! We carried Caroline to bed and rested our own heads for a long winter's nap. Everything's a trade-off; we suburbanites do miss the city—but I can assure you, we never miss it at Christmas.
This article was first published in November 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
The New York City Visitors Bureau Web site: www.nycvisit.com.
Area code is 212 unless noted: Radio City, 307-1000; Madison Square Garden, 307-4111; NY State Theater, 307-4100; Brooklyn Academy of Music, (718) 636-4100; Carnegie Hall, 247-7800; Trinity Church, 602-0800; Tavern on the Green, 873-3200; One If By Land, Two If By Sea, 228-0822; Rolf's, 477-4750; Café de Bruxelles, 206-1830; Gramercy Tavern, 477-0777; Symphony Space, 864-5400; Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, 662-2133.
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