Alternative New York Holiday Traditions
The holidays, as we collectively call them, start in earnest while we are still recovering from Halloween and preparing for Thanksgiving. Once Thanksgiving is over, all bets are off and we are surrounded by the Christmas season until we crawl back to work on January 2nd to the grim realities of our winter lives.
Holiday traditions are fine things, and for many years I took pride in my annual Bad Santa Party, which celebrated the greatest Christmas movie ever made, Bad Santa. Someday I will revive that tradition with a vengeance, but until that time it pays to find other holiday traditions that will celebrate the season without going to church or being part of a slack-jawed mob.
Of course, there are plenty of things to do that are not holiday related, but if you want to enjoy some yuletide spirit but not be surrounded by entitled ignoramuses or enormous crowds, here are some ways to observe the holiday season without losing your sanity or your edge.
Tree lightings abound. Mobs crowd Rockefeller Center and their tree is the most well-known in the city, but lots of other trees and menorahs have ceremonial lightings. Different parks, zoos and public gardens hold a host of lighting events and they are often a lot of fun. Go to one of those and you’ll get just as much craic as you would from going to some massive retail tree lighting and have a better time with smaller crowds as well.
Santa Claus for a better cause. You could certainly wait on a long line at a department store or shopping mall to put your sloppy toddler on that stranger’s lap, or you could explore an alternative venue where there won’t be as many elves or predatory photographers but the money will be going to a good cause. In my area, both the Queens Botanical Garden and the Lewis Latimer House have events where kids get to meet Santa Claus.
Anti SantaCon Pub Crawl. One of the more obnoxious holiday traditions in the city is SantaCon, a prolonged drunken stumble by perpetually unaware hollow men and their fawning female enablers. Sadly, SantaCon was once a fun and inspiring artistic event that became too popular and is now the corrupt antithesis of its founding ideals. But where there is a need for change, New Yorkers will step into the breech, and so bar owners in Brooklyn have started the Anti-SantaCon Gowanus Pub Crawl on Sunday, Dec. 9. You still get to dress up and drink in the holiday spirit, but absent the feeble stupidity that passes for holiday spirit among the current SantaCon crowd.
Literary birthday celebrations. Did you know that December 3 is Joseph Conrad’s birthday? Or that December 7 is the anniversary of Willa Cather’s birth? Shirley Jackson, Stanley Crouch, Edna O’Brien, Jane Austen, George Santayana, John Milton, and Mary Higgins Clark, among other literary lights, have birthdays in December. Why not have a party where you read their works?
Visit the New York Hall of Science. I have a tradition of visiting the New York Hall of Science on Christmas Eve with my daughters. It’s usually not crowded and our girls love science. It gives their mother a break from watching them for a while and she has time to wrap their gifts while they are away. It allows us to enjoy this popular public space in a bit of solitude and quiet.
There is no more New York thing to do than to carve out your own new tradition and celebration. The holidays give us these opportunities. Seize the day.
’Tis the Season to Watch Bad Santa
There are several great Christmas traditions that I refuse to surrender despite being a jaded, cynical atheist. I still give gifts to family and friends, I still buy a real Christmas tree and decorate it, and still I watch Bad Santa every year.
If you have not seen it, do so; you won’t be sorry. The 2003 movie stars Billy Bob Thorton as a thief who works as a department store Santa in order to gain easier access to the safe. You could argue that the movie is dated on that count—the most successful retail thieves these days do their work from laptops and the prevalence of credit and debit cards means store safes don’t hold as much cash as they used to—but that’s a minor point that will not detract from the movie.
Thorton is genius as the hard-drinking, serial-fornicating, foul-mouthed career criminal. The cast also includes John Ritter (RIP), Bernie Mac (RIP), Lauren Graham, Tony Cox and Ajay Naidu of Office Space fame as a “Hindustani Troublemaker.”
Bad Santa manages to both piss on the fraudulent cheer that comprises so much of what passes for holiday spirit while still offering a tale of redemption. His sneering delivery and drunken slurs give the holiday season the violent kick in the groin it rightfully deserves. He exudes contempt for the pampered children and jabbering housewives that expect him to be at their beck and call. He’s a champion to anyone who has ever had to work at a department store at Christmas time (I have; it sucks). He is a hardened predator among easy prey, a prisoner to his criminal profession, but willing to commit to violent street justice without hesitation to help his bullied host.
Cinema has given us no better Christmas hero than Billy Bob Thorton’s Willie.
Willie represents our great unbridled American spirit, unashamed to fornicate with strangers in department store changing rooms and tell shoppers to shove their holiday cheer right up their plus-sized asses.
I saw Bad Santa in the theater reluctantly the year it came out. The TV commercials didn’t make it look very good and I didn’t need another silly holiday comedy. But the movie won me over before the opening credits were through. I was blown away by the excellence of the film. It is at the same time incredibly depraved and inspiring. No other movie better captured the dual hatred and love we often feel towards the holidays.
The forced cheerfulness, the clueless do-gooder religious bleating, the consumerist fervor and the crowded conditions of our roads, trains and stores make all thinking men want to shit on the holidays with fiendish enthusiasm. Yet the undercurrent of holiday cheer is appealing. It is the end of the year harvest festival of the Roman Saturnalia, though colored by the pasted-on veneer of Christian myth. The silver lining to Christmas is that it promotes traditions that help strengthen the family, and it gets you gifts.
It’s for this reason that the next Christmas season I began a tradition of having a holiday party with watching Bad Santa the centerpiece of the event. This past weekend was no different, though many of my friends have now seen the move so many times that they didn’t pay as much attention to the movie, but it never fails to entertain.
If you’re going to watch a special movie for the holidays, there are many to choose from. Watch Bad Santa. It’s a holiday tradition you will want to continue.