Christmas in New York, Chestnuts Roasting In an Open Park
The celebration of Christmas is legendary in so many historic cities, but there is nothing that can compare to Christmas in New York. The hustle and bustle, the lights, the glamour, the theater, the food, there's no other city in the world like New York City, and at Christmas time, the city comes to life more than ever!
If you’re a fan of the musical “Auntie Mame”, as I am, you’ll remember the song in the show entitled, “We Need a Little Christmas, Now”. Poor Auntie Mame (who shall always be Roz Russell to me, despite the fact that she was not in the musical version) was down on her luck. Money had run out, and she had nothing but her cherished nephew and an indefatigable spirit to see her through. It feels uncomfortably like Auntie Mame-time for so many these days; we ALL do need a little Christmas. Now. And nobody knows how to do Christmas like New York City.
This article will reach people worlds away from the “Big Apple”, and some within a close radius. Wherever you are, I hope that all of you will, at some time in your lives, be able to experience Christmas in New York. This glorious season begins at the end of November, and goes on through the 10th of January.
I lived in Manhattan for about 23 years, and all of those New York Christmases have formed a lattice of priceless memories that I still draw upon with great affection. Since I moved out to the ‘burbs, time has not permitted me to get to the City during the holidays, and I miss it. A lot! No matter what they say about the classic “Currier and Ives” New England Christmas, there is nothing in the world as energizing and joyous as the Holiday Season 90 miles south of my current digs.
Ahhhhhh…Christmas in New York.
If you are fortunate enough to be able to visit this year, here’s a resident’s list of my favorite “not-to-miss” places and events. You can check online for specifics.
The season gets kicked off at the legendary Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which has attracted crowds for decades. This is precisely the reason why, in all my years living there, I have avoided that parade. Haven’t attended, not even once. It’s like New Year’s Eve at Times Square. You are either a crowd person or you’re not. I’m in the latter group. But the T-Day parade is symbolic. It’s the beginning. Nonetheless, it’s more fun (for me, anyway) to enjoy it on TV, where frostbite and mobs are not the aggravation du jour.
Early in December there is the Lighting of the Tree ceremony at Rockefeller Center. Another mob scene, to be sure, but one that I have braved. It’s fun to be there, at least once. The tree is chosen from many evergreen grandes dames competing for the honor, from New York and neighboring states. Just a few years ago, a stately Connecticut spruce was given the nod, and made us all very proud. It's not Christmas in New York without taking in the singular event of the brilliant tree at Rockefeller Center. The tree is always majestic and jaw-droppingly beautiful, a glittering diva holding court over the skating rink at Rockefeller Center, the heartbeat of all Christmas festivities in New York. Skaters of all ages make their “figure 8’s” beneath it, and spectators hang around for hours, mesmerized by the sheer beauty and joviality of it all. This tree is invariably magical in its mood-enhancing properties. You’ll want to stop by more than once before the season ends. While you’re in the area, cross the street to take in Saks Fifth Avenue’s Christmas windows. They are usually festive and fun – not as spectacular as Lord and Taylor, but you’ll see those beauties tomorrow.
As the first snowflakes are falling, the Rockettes are rolling out their latest Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall, just steps away from the Great Tree. Generations of Rockettes have made history on the Radio City stage, performing with perfect, studied precision, smiling their Rockette smiles. As always, the annual show is a little tacky, slightly kitsch, and totally wonderful. It is a Christmas in New York tradition at its best. Years ago, Radio City used to include a movie along with the stage show. The ticket demand was so great that they started performances at 6:00 AM. 6:00 AM! This concept really appealed to me. One year we arose at 4:00 AM, went to our favorite all-night eatery for a huge breakfast, then trotted over to the Music Hall in time for this earliest-of-early theatre engagements. It was a packed house; everyone was acting as though it was normal to be at a live theatrical event at the crack of dawn. We sat through the stage show watching those cheeky Rockettes doing their high kicks; Santa Himself was there, HO-HO-HO-ing as if it were 8 in the evening. Then we watched Albert Finney in the (then new) musical version of “Scrooge”. We emerged from the theater at about 10:30 AM, with the whole day ahead of us. An altogether surreal and joyous experience, and a memory that I cherish to this day.
Christmas in New York is not complete without a horse and carriage ride through Central Park. Hansom cab rides in New York have always been exorbitantly expensive. I imagine by now they are astronomical. Is there any bargaining with the drivers as to price? I suspect that the answer is yes. Anyway, it couldn’t hurt to try it out. Unless it’s raining, don’t miss this fun foray, horse and buggy style, into Central Park. If there is snow, it’s even more fun. Be sure to nail down the length of the ride along with the price. Don’t leave anything to chance.
I hope you are wearing your best, warmest, most comfy walking boots. If so,
have the driver and horsie leave you off at the Central Park Zoo, or the Carousel, or at Wollman Rink, where you can watch the skaters, or even take a turn around the rink yourself. I think there is a skate rental there, just as there is at the rink at Rockefeller Center. A customary ritual of Christmas in New York is the cozy aroma of roasting chestnuts. Be sure to purchase some hot roasted chestnuts and a big soft New York pretzel from a street vendor. Nothing tastes as good as these do on a frosty December day.
Speaking of food, by the time you trek out of the park (toward either the east or west side of Manhattan) you are going to be sufficiently cold and hungry to merit a scrumptious lunch in one of the hundreds of outstanding eateries that await you on both sides of the park. If you happen to walk out on the east side you might try your luck getting into Serendipity, on East 60th Street, just east of Third Avenue. It’s a time-honored, quirky, classic hole in the wall with a famous menu, and a famous clientele. You may have to wait in line to get in, so perhaps a call for a reservation is in order.
On Day Two, holiday window-hopping is first on the agenda. Remember, gift shopping on Fifth Avenue is so much a part of the celebratory season of Christmas in New York. It might be a strain on the wallet, and carrying bags around will weigh you down, however. Besides, most of us are doing our gift shopping online these days, and most of the stores you’ll be seeing have their own shopping sites. So relax and just be a hands-free spectator. Start at Macy’s on 34th and Broadway. Macy's is a "must" visit for natives and guests of the Christmas in New York festivities.. Go in and give Santa your Christmas list. Tell him how good you’ve been. He already knows the truth. So whichever it is, it’s too late and you can’t fool Santa. When you leave Macy’s, walk east one block to Fifth Avenue, take a left, and stroll north 4 blocks, to Lord & Taylor, for a glimpse of their famous holiday windows. They are always worth a visit. There will probably be a line, but it moves quickly; you will want to get up close to see the incredible displays that keep people of all ages coming back year after year. If your feet are holding out, walk uptown ten blocks to check out Saks Fifth Avenue’s displays. Then, if you are so inclined, cross the street and visit the Nativity Scene at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Spend a little time soaking up this lovely landmark’s tranquility, while you rest your piggies. You can even get in a quick prayer for world peace. Upon exiting St. Patrick’s, grab the chance for a second glance at the exquisite tree at Rockefeller Center, which is just across the street.
There are myriads of interesting shops on Fifth Avenue. The hustle and bustle and people-watching alone is festive holiday fun. Bergdorf Goodman’s, Tiffany’s, and a host of other fabulous stores await you on and around 57th Street. Lunch will be no problem in this neck of the woods. There are many high-end, “chi-chi” restaurants, as well as plenty of price-conscious choices. You’ll eat well in either scenario.
If ballet is your thing, try to get in to see The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center. There are usually Matinees on certain days as well as evening performances. Or perhaps you can catch Handel’s Messiah in one of the City’s many exquisite cathedrals. If you have never experienced a live performance of “The Messiah” in a cathedral setting you are in for a treat.
Before your departure, see if you can hook up with a night tour of the City’s Christmas Lights. And be sure to see Grand Central’s kaleidoscopic light show, which is performed on the vast ceilings of the famous terminal.
Try to add Christmas in New York to your agenda this holiday season.
I’m surely going to try. Maybe I’ll see you there!
Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas, Hannukah, and Kwanzaa - and to all, a most prosperous New Year.
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