I am not a Christmas person – I fear the pageantry and the crowds. Yet when I moved to New York in the wet days of last spring, I knew it was waiting for me at the end of the year, like an unwelcome chore. Christmas in Manhattan is part of the global imagination, a mythology of Miracles on 34th Street and revellers in Central Park. I moved into my Manhattan apartment with a distant curiosity, expectation – and fear – about what it would actually be like.
As always with Christmas, I first had to wait. Eight floors up on the side of cavernous Fifth Avenue, I could view the other festivals that populate New York’s year: the 150,000-strong St Patrick’s Day parade, first held in the 1760s and now the biggest in the world, Puerto Rican Day with around 80,000 marchers, even the Hare Krishnas jogging south to Washington Square. In June, I stood with my daughter at our window staring down on the heads of the high-stepping, long, winding, raucous Gay Pride parade. One celebrant tossed a baton so high that he could never possibly catch it again but he always did.
9/11 is a new annual anti-event, marked by absence, a dimming of noise on the avenues and streets, an unconscious turning to the towers that are no longer there. At Halloween, an outpouring of costume and drama, I sat on the crowded F train beside a five-star general and read in amNY about the largest pumpkin in the world displayed at Grand Central Station.
At Halloween, children parade around Washington Square but the main event is the extravaganza flowing north on Sixth Avenue from Greenwich Village. (According to local blogs, Malcolm Gladwell masks were among this year’s most popular.) On 16th Street there were gangs of Hassidic Jews, who weren’t, and police, who weren’t, except for those police who turned pedestrians back from the parade route. “Who needs Halloween?” cried a woman stalking past with her son.
Why are there so many public parades in New York? In this crowded mega-city, a mish-mash of 8m, each culture wants to assert its identity, to claim its day. Another reason, I thought at first, was human compensation for a lack of natural seasons on this ultimate urban island. But Manhattan has its seasons of course. They are measured by the weather, such as July’s blinding heat that brings out a field of topless flesh in grassy oases like Sheep Meadow near Strawberry Fields.
The seasons are also measured by the ebb and flow of people as the metropolis empties in August until the first days of September, when the crowds migrate in again from the Hamptons, schools start up, streets are choked under the blue sky and you realise why the impact of the terrorists was so devastating when they disrupted the fresh new, hopeful beginning of Manhattan’s year.
In New York, there is change of colour, too, when fall sets in and the clothes of the models in the windows and the shoppers – the real flora and fauna of Manhattan – suddenly overnight, like an entire forest of leaves, flush brown.
I still really doubted there were seasons in Manhattan but one evening I sat in Bryant Park, the Chrysler Building peeping over the dark shoulder of the New York Public Library, ice dancers – “Ladies and Gentlemen, a free performance with Hansel, Gretel, and the Witch” – tiptoeing on to the rink beneath the floodlights, the ice-white Citi ads part of the seasonal flowering, the cold, the stars, the muffled clothes – and it was unmistakably November in Manhattan.
Then, early one morning a few days later, just when I think Christmas will never actually arrive, I jog past a tree lying ignominiously in Madison Square Park, trussed up and waiting for levitation. In Washington Square, a prouder tree already stands tall beneath the arch and the russet sunrise above the East River holds out the promise of the coming holiday season and transforms the storeyed towers around Union Square into glowing baubles.
A few days later I walk up Fifth Avenue to witness the sights of New York Christmas. At Broadway, the manholes are steaming in the cold, even the dirtiest cafés have acquired a rash of coloured lights and the flames on a tin kebab stall dance merrily.
My friends tell me to visit the department store windows but at Macy’s I can’t get near enough to see. A heavy crowd watches dancers rehearse to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” for the Thanksgiving Parade. Inside, inflatable Snoopies loom overhead and shoppers, trapped in the lifts lean back, expiring, looking like they are in some kind of hell.
At Lord & Taylor, the windows have a theme of Christmas through the ages: rocking elves, skating children.
“It’s traditional,” said a woman beside me in a warm coat. “I like tradition,” said her friend. They were from Maine. They had come to New York for shopping, eating and spoke admiringly of the subdued snowflakes in the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue, the white crystals in Bloomingdale’s and the lighting of the Lincoln Center tree the evening before. “We missed it but our friends called from Maine to tell us to watch it on TV.”
At Bloomingdale’s on Lexington Avenue, the theme is “Celebrating the World”. The windows are filled with revolving Santas. One window is devoted to Hanukkah, the Jewish festival, which in New York rivals Christmas. So multicultural is the nature of New York Yuletide that “Happy Holidays” often replaces “Merry Christmas” as a common salutation, a fact that last year drew the fire-breathing ire of conservatives on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News.
In Bloomingdale’s windows, after the depiction of the exotica of Russia’s Grandfather Frost and the Dutch feast of Sinterklaas, there seems to be some relief, in the American window, at the simplicity of “jolly ol’ Santa Claus and our beloved Rudolph”.
New Yorkers, probably more than anyone else, lay claim to the invention of today’s modern Christmas. Until the 19th century, the holiday season was still influenced by its Dutch colonial and puritan past, according to author Daniel Pool in Christmas in New York, and New Year’s Day was a bigger holiday. That was soon to change in the imaginations of writers such as Washington Irving and O. Henry. In 1822, Clement Moore, a stay-at-home professor of Hebrew and Greek who lived in what was then rural Chelsea, wrote “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”, which crystalised the image of the jolly gift-giving “elf” who arrived on December 24.
New York never seems to have looked back in its festive treacliness. In December, the only manuscript of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is brought out for the public in the Morgan Library at 225 Madison Avenue. Another chief text of Manhattan sentimentality is “Yes, Virginia”. In 1897, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to the New York Sun asking whether Santa Claus existed, prompting hardy journalist Francis P. Church to gush in an editorial that he “exists certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”
While Thanksgiving is the private American family holiday, Christmas – at least in New York – is a public affair. Some might say it is kitsch. In fact it is beautiful. Commercialism is everywhere and yet the corporate rivalry – the red ribbon and boxes tumbling from Cartier’s store, the snowdrops on De Beers – creates ingenuity, wonder, style.
I visit the Rockefeller Center, the central grotto of New York Christmas. A grand Norway spruce from Ridgefield, Connecticut – 9 tonnes, 88ft tall, more than 80 years old, decked in a costume of lights – looks down benevolently on a scene of ice skaters. Sting and Christina Aguilera starred at this year’s annual 74th Christmas tree lighting. I walk on to Barneys on Madison Avenue, whose windows – “Happy Andy Warhol-idays” – sprinkled with dollar signs and the king of pop art’s bon mots – in which Barneys declares Warhol “the patron saint of American retail” – are, for me, the city’s best.
After this at Christmas in New York I want to see the tree in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its Neapolitan angels and the origami tree in the Museum of Natural History. I want to see the lights peppering Park Avenue and drive to marvel at the suburban lights of New Jersey and Queens. Instead I climb back to the peak of Fifth Avenue, at the crossroads with 57th street, and stand under the giant snowflake that is suspended by wires over Bulgari, Louis Vuitton, Bergdorf Goodman and Tiffany’s. I look south towards the Empire State Building, in its traditional red and green mantle of Christmas lights right up to its antenna. The sky is white with cold. Down the canyons, misty towers tumble over each other into the distance.
Outside Tiffany’s, a woman in a parka from the Salvation Army is shaking to keep the cold away as much as to usher cash into her bucket. The insistent clatter of her hand bell rises above the crowds.
“Sharing Is Caring. God Bless You.”
Christmas is here in New York and I like it.
Get alerts on Travel when a new story is published