My Dear Family,
It’s the evening of Dec. 16th. I’m writing from my apartment, located roughly at the transition from Williamsburg to Bushwick in Brooklyn. From my third story windows I can see the famous Manhattan skyline in the approaching twilight. It still gives me a rush to see the city looming up like that in the distance. I am now certain, by the way, that that’s what cities are principally designed to do: to loom. I’ve been living here in New York City for almost exactly three months. I feel like I’m just starting to settle in. Strangers on the street are starting to ask me for directions, and usually, I can now tell them with some certainty that McKibbin St., to use last night’s example, is only two blocks down and one to the right. I know my bodega is on the corner of Morgan and Grattan. This is crucial.
My editors at The Morning News, as prescribed by sinister hazing rituals for their lowly interns, gave me a holiday writing assignment: immerse myself in the seasonal traditions of New York and report back as a newcomer to its ways. Due to my trip home over Thanksgiving I missed Macy’s parade, but almost immediately upon my return to the city I set off in search of its Yuletide traditions. What follows is a gritty, true-to-life exposition of my first holiday season as a New Yorker.
I flew back to New York on November 26th. The tree-lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center took place on the 29th. As my return flight rounded Manhattan on the way into La Guardia, I could roughly locate the spot where the tree should be standing in the middle of the island. I couldn’t see the tree as it wasn’t lit yet, but I knew it was there. When flying over Manhattan you see how small and dense it is. It all seems to fit so neatly, its buildings and layout a picturesque fancy, its people, one must think, a product of collective agreement.
It turns out more than 100,000 New Yorkers went to see the lighting ceremony. At least, that’s how many I later heard were in the square that night. I pushed and jostled my way into a morass of people immediately as I left the subway stop at 48th Street and 6th Ave. There were bands of teenagers yelling across the crowds. There were families with young children, everyone wearing Christmas sweaters and light-up Santa hats, and early-twentysomething couples out for a romantic night, oblivious to the riot growing around them. I waited for a half-hour in the same spot, still a block from where I could have seen the square. An old woman shouted, to anyone who would listen, “don’t even BAW-thuh tryin’ to see tha tree!” How wise she seemed to me. I don’t think I missed much. Sting, Bette Midler, and Christina Aguilera were there, according to the news reports the following day, and none of them really make me think, “Christmas!”
I’ve since been back to Rockefeller Center. On a Tuesday night, a week after the ceremony, the square still felt overcrowded, but at least I could walk around freely. I watched snowflake-shaped spotlights play over the glamorous, bluish-lit Art Deco facades of the surrounding buildings and people ice skating in the grotto-like rink below the tree. This year’s tree is an 88-foot, nine-ton Norway spruce from western Connecticut. It arrived here in early November and has since been covered with 30,000 lights. Flash bulbs went off as the world’s tourists fought to have their pictures taken on 48th St. I, no longer a tourist but otherwise indistinguishable, paid a photographer a dollar to take a picture with my Polaroid. “There ya go, boss,” as he handed the camera back to me. He was on my F train later, eating what looked like a bologna sandwich. He didn’t recognize me. Maybe next year I can watch the lighting ceremony, but I’ll have to camp out for a few hours beforehand. Beating the crowd—whether searching for an apartment, a job, a seat in a restaurant, or to watch a 90-foot tree go up in lights—seems to be the imperative in this city.
Classy uptown department stores traditionally try to out-class each other in the field of window displays during the holidays. My window-shopping took me on a descending arc to the west across 5th Ave. starting from around 60th St., at Bloomingdale’s. Their theme this year is good, old St. Nick. They have about 10 windows, each one showcasing a Santa-like figure from different countries with some script on the glass explaining the figures and the traditions surrounding them. There were about 40 or 50 people viewing the windows with me. Not much conversation overheard, except for some random “ohs,” “ahs,” and “isn’t that pretty?” I was intrigued to learn of the Dutch Santa’s manservant, a quixotic little Spaniard (the Dutch believe Santa spends most of the year in Spain. Who knew?) known as Zwarte Piet, and of Italy’s Christmas crone La Befana. My favorite display depicted Russia’s wintry myth of Grandfather Frost who brought a little girl made of ice and snow to life for a poor, barren couple. Touching, isn’t it? Frost and the little girl, both life-size, he in a great red jacket, she wearing a sparkly blue winter coat, twirl about each other in an otherwise still winter-wonderland setting.
Bergdorf Goodman’s displays were most impressive, with great attention to detail, but their relation to the holiday season was questionable. A jungle-themed display, with vibrant colors and tropicalia practically radiated an unseasonable warmth onto the sidewalk. One window showed a pair of identical women, all in black and white and compellingly creepy, photography equipment surrounding them. In another window, a life-sized polar bear/gentleman caller startled a young woman who answered the door with a bottle of vodka in hand. While I was shutterbugging the polar bear display, a strange man walked into my shot. He proudly distinguished himself from his peers by dyeing his beard pink and green, wearing a live parrot on his head, and walking his tutu-ed dog around in a baby stroller. I couldn’t quite place his accent. I think it was Slavic in origin. He let me take his picture for a dollar and wished me a Merry Christmas.
One of the ice-crystal people in one of Saks’s displays looked suspiciously like Woody Allen to me. Two men played steel drums in front of the display windows. I heard “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Holly Jolly Christmas.”
Macy’s animatronic displays, which I saw the next day on my way to visit Santa, featured scenes from A Miracle on 34th Street. One window showed the scene from the movie wherein Mr. Claus wins his identity case in court. Another showed an adorable Thanksgiving Day Parade miniature, complete with a shrunken Raggedy Ann balloon. I snapped a few more pics and headed inside to see the big man himself. I had just recently read David Sedaris’s SantaLand Diaries, about his short career as a Macy’s Elf, so I was a little concerned about what was to follow. His tale of Gorgon-mothers, lascivious fathers, and children peeing and vomiting in corners was not comforting for one going to see Santa for the first time in years. Luckily, I witnessed none of the above. The elf welcoming visitors onto a makeshift train, the entrance to Santaland, asked me, “Is this your first time on the Santaland Express?”
“Yes, it is. I’m writing a story for a magazine,” I replied, obviously feeling the need to explain my presence there.
She laughed, probably catching my self-consciousness, and said, “Well, welcome aboard!” She was kinda cute. I wondered what she did during the rest of the year, but the line was moving pretty quickly, so I didn’t get a chance to chat.
I wound my way through the model North Pole, the whole excursion taking less than half an hour. I was bookended by families with small children, and ended up at a matronly elf, who sounded like she was from the Bronx, asking, “One in your party?”
“Yeah, just me.”
She led me away from the line to see Santa and added, pointing to a pair of her co-workers, “Oh my, those young ladies are checking you out, honey.”
“Really?” Me? I turned around to catch a couple of Helper Elves laughing and half-hiding their faces. I gave them a big thumbs up.
I was led to a small room made to look like the inside of a quaint, rustic cabin, hearth aglow, one of several rooms like it, each housing its own Santa. There may have been 10 of these rooms or more. In the cabin were two elves at Santa’s service: one to take pictures, one to escort people in and out. Thankfully, Santa didn’t give me a hard time about being a suspiciously childless man asking to sit on his lap, and the elves seemed to get a kick out of it. I had wondered, while waiting in line, what I would ask him for. I considered asking that he make Britney Spears wear underpants, but that may be out of his hands. I’d received a suggestion from my friend Chadwick the previous evening to ask for weapons-grade plutonium, but I thought that would be pushing my luck. I went with Peace on Earth. Santa gave me a desultory shrug and said, “I’ll see what I can do,” which I thought was so fair a response that I won’t even mention how badly he smelled. I can be very big about things like that.
About a week after my visit to Santa, I went to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Radio City Music Hall is, itself, spectacular. It’s done up all in retro Art Deco. It first opened in 1932, though, so it’s not actually retro. The auditorium is enormous. Big chandeliers and red velvet curtains. Two organs ensconced on either side of the stage. Private boxes line the walls. I took my cheap ($50!) seat in the third mezzanine.
The show began with a stirring overture, but by the end of the night hearing regular pastiches of Christmas music became irritating. The Rockettes themselves, while a grand tradition and the keystone of the show, are a relic of that bygone era of “nice gams, dame” family fare. Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy myself. The second number was a 3-D movie segment showing Santa’s sleigh swooping down to Manhattan, dodging buildings, spilling presents, and landing in front of Radio City. 3-D glasses came with the program. The mechanical engineering behind a fully movable orchestra pit is mind-boggling. I particularly liked the Parade of the Wooden Soldiers number, which, as I am a pacifist, gave me a mild ethical crisis. At one point, Santa announced to the crowd, “I just got a letter from a little boy in Tallahassee, Florida,” which, as you all know to be my hometown, gave me a case of what I’m going to term the Christmas willies.
The best part, though, was when Santa ran through the audience and gave a little boy in the third row a big hug. My cynical adult mind knows that this, too, was a set-piece, that Santa hugs whatever child is in that seat three times a day for a month, but I tried to see it from that child’s perspective. He seemed overjoyed, and thinking that that hug made his Christmas, it made mine, too. Christmas isn’t really for us adults. It’s for the children around us, in our families, and for those traces of youth we carry around in our happiest memories.
Today I went ice-skating for the third time in my life. I was doing pretty well, but then I fell right on my ass. It was probably the most fun I’d had during the whole holiday season. Again, I was competing for space with a huge crowd of people, but these were mostly young teenagers, typical-looking New York “thug life” punks, who frighten me. The music playing at the pleasant, little niche of a rink in Central Park was an even distribution of Christmas classics and “My Humps.” The midtown buildings rose just beyond the brown and yellow foliage of Sheep’s Meadow’s trees.
Being new to the City, I haven’t made many friends yet, and I had to go it alone at the rink, like most everything else I’ve done here. I looked about me and saw kids with their friends, young lovers doing that impossible-looking slow-dance skating, and a few older people with their children. Alone in a sea of strangers—strangers presumably spending time with their loved ones—I was reminded of the only thing left missing from my holiday season. I miss all of you so much, and, while I love being in New York and taking part in all that this city has to offer, its renowned Christmas traditions or other activities, I am eager to get back home because all of the immaculate decorations, the music-hall spectaculars, and drunk transients dressed like Santa in the world can’t replace any of you. Mark my words: I’ll be home for Christmas!
Deck the halls,