I'll Be Home For Christmas
2020 wreaked a lot of havoc, including separating me from the City that I love. My first trip to NYC was in April of 2003, and despite a hearty dose of initial country-girl shock, I’ve returned at least once per year ever since. If my count is correct, trains, planes, and automobiles have taken me into New York City 38 different times in the last 17 years. I really miss it now.
A trip that had been planned for April was pushed (with great optimism) to September before almost immediately being kicked out to November, leaving hope dangling by a tattered and bedraggled string. Eventually, the flights were cancelled and the long-suffering box office workers on Broadway gave up after the third rescheduling and issued the saddest refund ever received.
At least one other destined trip never even made it onto the calendar – my annual pilgrimage to the glitz and glamour of New York at the holidays. It would have been my 10th straight year.
I have a tenuous relationship with Christmas. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” Yep. It’s also the most anxiety-riddled and emotionally exhausting time of the year. An annual Christmas breakdown was not really a tradition I wanted to uphold, so I dispensed with the decorations and the parties and the pressure and created a new holiday ritual in New York. I didn’t set out to do that, of course. I just needed to see New York at Christmastime “at least once” to check off that bucket list item, but when I got there and got wrapped up in larger-than-life Christmas spirit around every corner, I couldn’t stay away. I got my “Christmas fix” in the biggest way imaginable and it always put me in a markedly better emotional state.
It seems that everything went sideways in 2020, so why should Christmas be any different? After the meltdown, you can bet I searched online to figure out that I could get a negative Covid test, drive to NYC (safest mode of transportation), quarantine for three days, get another test, and then I’d be free to roam the quieter streets and admire the trees. I could have done it safely, but not as safely as I could sit at home in my apartment, and so my would-be 10th year passed me by. And no, I didn’t put up a tree.
So, what to do but wander memory lane and remember the magic, trusting, willing, and praying I’ll get back to it when December rolls around again.
My first Christmas trip was mostly a to-do list of Christmas trees, not that anyone could see all of NYC’s Christmas trees in a lifetime. Still, I wanted to hit the highlights:
Of, course New York’s renown crown jewel of Christmastime is the Rockefeller Christmas Tree. Approached from 5th Avenue, it’s a breathtaking sight.
Over the years, I have visited this tree over and over again, braving the insane crowds that press into Rockefeller Center to view it. I am fond of this photo from 2012 of my cousin Tracey seeing the tree for the first time.
And while I think everyone should experience the tree first at night, it makes a pretty sight (with less crowds) during the day as well.
Across 5th Avenue from the magnificent tree stands Saks Department Store. While 5th Avenue is known for its window displays, Saks takes things a step further with a projection show. Over the years, the show has morphed into quite an eye-catching light display.
I would never wish to downplay the Rockefeller Center Christmas experience – the tree, the angels, the Swarovski star, the ice rink, and Saks – but part of New York’s allure is the ability to find magical moments away from the madding crowd.
One of my “moments” on that first Christmas trip came as I was checking Christmas trees off my list. I had never been to the South Street Seaport in downtown Manhattan, just south of the Brooklyn Bridge. The streets were nearly empty as I walked from the subway station (all the business types having made their way home from work long since) and I found the Seaport and the shopping center at Pier 17 in a similarly deserted state. Nevertheless, I knew I’d arrived when I turned the corner and spotted a truly garish Christmas tree – a goofy, ugly thing, which surprised me when it sprang to life performing a light show set to brash, instrumental Christmas music that can best be described as aggressively plinky.
I fell in love with that awful tree. I was completely on board with its assault of Christmas music and I am a sucker for dancing lights. The bands of lights on the tree lit up in never-ending shades, many of the color-combinations a hideous affront to aesthetic norms. But it was just so darn cheerful that I couldn’t resist. I watched it forever and videoed parts of its performance, which set off every 15 minutes.
I wandered up onto the pier and sat alone in a wooden lounge chair overlooking the East River towards Brooklyn. I felt like I had discovered a secret passage. Once the chill set in, I warmed up with cheese fries at Johnny Rockets and returned to watch the tree a while longer before heading back uptown, very pleased with myself.
That was 2011. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy ripped through NYC and destroyed much of the Seaport, so it was closed for construction that Christmas. In 2013, I went back and dragged a friend along to reunite with my favorite tree, only to discover that it no longer played its music to dancing lights. The next year, it was gone entirely, replaced with something classic and simple and not ugly at all. The Seaport is still charming, but it buzzes with people and the old wooden lounge chairs are gone. Lots of “upgrades,” but I hold onto the fond memory of its once charming, tattered state.
I lost my tree to renovations, and some years later, my favorite 5th Avenue shop windows were shuttered by the changing retail landscape. Every year that I strolled the famous shop windows (of Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Bergdorf Goodman, etc.), it was Lord and Taylor that always stole my heart.
As it would happen, the last year I visited their windows, they included raccoons! I’m sure that was just for me – a fond farewell.
New York City has always felt larger-than-life to me, literally and figuratively. If possible, that feeling is only more pronounced at Christmas.
That first year, I made the long subway pilgrimage to Dyker Heights in Brooklyn to experience the neighborhood’s world-famous decorations. Get a load of this enormous Santa! It’s not a perspective trick. He really is nearly as tall as a house – a big house, at that!
I like how Santa presides over a home that’s both classy and audacious at the same time. My favorite Dyker Heights house, however, fully embraces the community’s reputation for “tacky” displays.
I’ve been back to visit these lights on three more trips in order to share them with my cousin, Tracey, and my friend, Melissa, as well as just to explore them again for myself.
As spectacles go, New York has plenty. There is something for everyone, and I have tried to get a taste of it all.
At Lincoln Center, I attended a performance of The Nutcracker. I can’t say that ballet is very much my thing, but Lincoln Center itself is lovely, and of course they have a tree!
Across town at Radio City Music Hall, the Rockettes bring a different kind of dance to the stage with their fun-for-all-ages Christmas Spectacular. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched their show.
For a different brand of entertainment, the New York Transit Museum showcases their vintage trains with Holiday Nostalgia subway rides. The old trains run a typical subway route, so they serve a practical purpose as well as an aesthetic one. For the low price of a subway ride, passengers can board these trains and admire the old fabrics and décor as well as entertaining advertisements and passenger notices from days gone by. Many New Yorkers dress for the occasion, making the throwback complete.
When timing allows, I have always loved attending New York’s various tree lighting ceremonies. I even attended Rockefeller one year, which was a memorable experience, but not one I’m likely to repeat. It’s a bit of a circus!
That same year, I attended Bryant Park’s Tree Lighting Skate-tacular, which is also a large production, but with a smaller crowd. Christmas themed ice-skating performances give way to the tree lighting, which includes a quick burst of celebratory fireworks when the lights pop on.
Of course, since NYC has so many trees, there are also many other lighting ceremonies that are considerably quainter than those in touristy Midtown. I’ve attended many of them at least once, but there’s one tree lighting I’ve returned to over and over again. It’s in a small community park with a terribly unimposing and haphazardly strung Christmas tree, but neighbors gather together with songbooks and candles to sing carols together until “Joy to the World” signals the lights. It’s the kind of event that you find in Hallmark Christmas movies but would never expect exists in real life. And yet, year after year I find it on the Upper East Side in Carl Schurz Park.
I am a master of “bucket lists,” but there are still some experiences that I cannot plan into fruition. Even so, good things come to those who wait, and my third NYC Christmas finally gifted me that incomparable magic of falling snow.
The fact that the snow cancelled my flight home didn’t deter me. I wanted to see NYC all over again, but in the snow. And I tried. I dashed to Central Park, skipped down snowy sidewalks, made a break for Rockefeller Center, zig-zagged across Manhattan and all the way out to Brooklyn before doubling back to Central Park and nearly freezing my toes off in a pair of borrowed boots.
Having surveyed the scene in full, when I got my second snowfall in 2017, I didn’t hesitate to make my way to Central Park to wander. It really is a winter wonderland.
They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. New York, it’s hardly possible, but let’s see.