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.
I came to know my friend Eric aka “Sleazy E” through his performances with a man known as Dirty Diamond, who sings raunchy parodies of Neil Diamond songs. Eric has since moved to Portland, Oregon after living in New Orleans and Philadelphia.
Eric was coming back East for the holidays and I agreed to pick him up from J.F.K. Airport at 5:30 in the morning because doing so was the kind of pre-dawn adventure I really didn’t need but would greatly regret not having. My friend needed to get from the airport to Penn Station very early on a weekend morning and that’s not a fun time even during normal waking hours, and it was rare to get an audience with the Sleazy One, since he’s on the West Coast now.
The roadways of J.F.K. Airport comprise a spaghetti bowl of shame and signage. I ran at least one red light I didn’t realize was there, and had to abandon my aided navigation for just reading signs, but I managed to get to the right passenger terminal and soon Eric and I were on our way to GoodFellas Diner.
GoodFellas Diner wasn’t always called that. It was named such because scenes from the movie ‘GoodFellas’ were filmed there. We drove through the quiet streets of Maspeth among warehouses, lumber yards, and loading docks. It’s a part of the city that still retains some of the industrial grit that made New York the engine of commerce that it is.
We were the only customers when we walked in, but not long after we sat down a young couple sat a few booths away and then a large, flatbed tow truck parked next to my van and the driver joined the small breakfast rush.
Catching up with Eric made it worth the early morning drive. He’s developed a biting yet healthy cynicism that informs his approach to enjoying life without excuses. Originally from Camden and raised in Philadelphia, he’s accustomed to more rough and tumble ways than are commonplace on the West Coast. He is constantly amazed by the soft-bellied practices of Portland denizens. His longtime dream is to open and run a pizza parlor; a slice of pizza is tattooed upon his arm among other things, and he apprenticed at one of Philadelphia’s most well-regarded pizza restaurants.
We discussed how the tourist traps of Philadelphia have promoted Cheese Whiz as an essential ingredient because tourists fall for it as “authentic” and it saves them the money they would have to spend on real cheese. The better, lesser-known cheese steak makers preferred by locals will use real cheese.
Our breakfast at GoodFellas was on-par diner fare and the atmosphere remained unpretentious and authentic. We made sure to take some photos before we left. We swung by a 7 Eleven so I could get more coffee and then made our way into Manhattan.
Our navigation took us through a midtown that was still waking up. Adorned for the holiday season, I was able to give Eric a quick rolling tour of some of the holiday season’s more notable city locales. Park Avenue offered a sweeping rear view of the Helmsley Building and many trees in midtown are lined with lights from trunk to bough. Going down Fifth Avenue, The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree was bright and glowing in the early morning light, St. Patrick’s Cathedral was a silent sentry over the layered holiday décor of Saks Fifth Avenue.
But true to our mission, we soon found ourselves at the entrance to Penn Station. Penn Station was once a place of grandeur and the city is trying to make that happen again by turning the old Farley Post Office into the new Penn Station. Until then though, Penn Station is a confusing and squalid place, and as I dropped Eric off for the second part of his journey to Philly, the life forms of the old New York were milling about as a form of disorganized welcoming committee; a near perfect assembly to begin a sojourn to Philadelphia.
I bid farewell to my friend there on 8th Avenue, wishing him a happy holidays and safe travels, and hoping he would bring his surly ways to New York soon again.
When the weather is bad, our family goes to the zoo. Our logic is this: Many of the indoor spaces will be overcrowded and the zoo will be sparsely populated. When you’ve lived in the city long enough, avoiding crowds is more important than avoiding pneumonia.
So this past weekend’s snowfall made our planned trip to Westchester unwise, but made a short drive to the zoo a piece of cake. The parking lot on 111th Street that is a chaotic mess and a graveyard of public parking dreams during the summer had plenty of spaces. I pulled into a space right near the ramp we would need for our youngest daughter’s stroller.
One of the goals for this weekend was to help give my wife time alone at home to prepare our home for Christmas. I was on my own for several hours with three children all under four years of age, and found myself pushing a stroller through a moderate snowfall in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park on our way to the Queens Zoo. There was a small group of teenagers having a snowball fight when we got there, and one cyclist pedaled past us and shot me a strange look is if to be amazed he came across someone crazier than he was out in the snow.
While the children were equipped with proper hats and coats, one pair of mittens was inevitably quickly lost and our youngest got wet and hungry very fast. The snowfall was not bad. It was only one or two inches in the city and the snow did not stick to the streets very well. A few runs of a plow with some sand and salt made things OK. But cold kids make for cranky kids and herding three youngsters through the wet and cold is a chore with an additional distraction (snow) that is also a physical obstacle. The front wheels of the stroller would stop cutting through and spin in a sideways fashion, gathering reels of snow around themselves like some perverse cotton candy machine. Otherwise they would stop moving completely and I’d be essentially be operating the world’s most ineffective snow plow.
The Queens Zoo is a perfect place to bring kids because it’s relatively small compared with its larger and more famous counterpart The Bronx Zoo. It can be done thoroughly in a morning or afternoon. Arriving at the zoo after a snowfall revealed a hushed atmosphere covered in a gorgeous layer of fresh white powder that proved perfect for making snowballs. It was one of those days when you look around and can’t believe you are in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world. A few times you would hear the rush of the highway or the sounds of people playing in the park outside the zoo’s fence, but it was desolate and beautiful and well worth the soggy feat and cold hands.
The zoo posts the times of the sea lion feeding and I had to hustle to get us there in time. When we got to the sea lions, there was one other couple there. This couple were the only other non-zoo employees we saw during our entire stay. They huddled under an umbrella while two of my daughters climbed a snow-covered rock and declared it their mountain and the other sat on the wet ground to have a better vantage point to scream her undefined infant rage at the world. That’s right, normal couple at the zoo: my children are many times tougher than you and earned the grudging respect of the animal kingdom.
We had an up-close view of the sea lion feeding up close but cut it short because we were all hungry. The Sea Lion Café offered a warm, dry refuge and sold hot coco and coffee among its souvenirs and snacks. We took our time eating before we bundled up again, only go head to a restroom where it was necessary to take coats off again. We easily killed 20 minutes in the restroom, making sure everyone either used the toilet or had a diaper change. Then back out into the snow.
The girls enjoyed looking at the animals but probably enjoyed handling the snow and stomping on puddles more. Even though my wife had packed more than adequate snacks for us, “snow burgers” became a much sought-after treat, and there was no keeping my young charges from indulging in them, only trying to police the color and source of the snow (only white snow, not from the ground).
We marveled at how close the sea lions and the bison came to us, and followed with a mad dash to get to a restroom again. By the time we finished there and thought about returning to glimpse more animals, security guards looked to be closing the zoo for the day. It was just as well, my girls were showing signs of fatigue and by the time I got them back to our van and buckled in, they slept soundly for two hours while I went on a coffee-fueled road trip from Corona to Flushing and Bayside.
I returned home with three tired children to a home in much better order. Mission accomplished.
Last year I was waiting for a bus on Main Street in Flushing when the guy on line next to me began complaining.
“You see that snowflake, right there,” he said to the woman he was with, referencing a large snowflake make of lights suspended over the heavily trafficked street. “That represents everything wrong with society today.”
While it was definitely too early to put up holiday decorations, the snowflakes over the street are not the ultimate illustration of our society’s ills.
Holiday decorations before Thanksgiving are definitely bad taste, but complaining about the holidays to prove how edgy you are is probably worse. I have no idea if the guy bitching about the snowflakes over Main Street celebrates any holidays this time of year, but judging by his appearance and the language he spoke the odds are good that he gives and receives gifts in the month of December.
Years ago I worked in a department store and the store had its own full-time staff that were in charge of all decorations. No matter what the season or the sale, they were always hard at work taking down or putting up something different. I remember seeing them put up a giant wreath in either August or September and I thought it was ridiculous, so I asked one of the guys about it. “It’s not that we want to be putting up holiday decorations this early,” he said. “It’s that there’s so much of it that if we don’t start on it now, we’ll never get all of it done by Black Friday.”
I’m as jaded about the holidays as the next New Yorker. People take them way too seriously. It’s supposed to be such an enjoyable time of the year that people go into it expecting perfection, when perfection just isn’t part of normal or happy life. Last year people bitched that the Starbucks cups weren’t heavy enough on the Christmas theme (I remind people that 7 Eleven has green and red coffee cups all goddamn year).
The proper response to the flurry of early holiday decorations is to not bitch about them and just go about your normal life. The holidays will be there for you when you want to pay attention to them.
One of the things I’m looking forward to most this holiday season is watching Bad Santa 2. The original Bad Santa became my go-to holiday movie after I saw it in the theater in 2003 and it cracked me up with a depraved holiday cynicism that ought to resonate with any skeptic.
And I’m sincerely looking forward to the holidays this year. It’s been a long year in a lot of ways. The world is indeed a dark and depressing place most of the time and there are a lot of things to be worried and anxious about. But if you have family or close friends you can spend time with and have a roof over your head and food in your stomach this holiday season, you have a reason to be glad.
And New York is beautiful over the holidays. Even the most jaded denizen of the Big Apple can find beauty among the schlocky tourist crap that permeates everything. Enjoy.
New York City is largely spared the horrors of Black Friday shopping brawls. A security guard was trampled to death a few years ago in Valley Stream, Long Island, right outside of Queens, but within the five boroughs we have a better history of crowd control. And few of our poor people have cars. There’s not a lot of motivation to try to haul a 60-inch plasma screen TV home on the subway.
But that doesn’t mean there’s not enough misery to go around. Last year I was trying to get to a restaurant in midtown the night of the Christmas tree lighting in Rockefeller Center. Not only were the usual crowds heading to the tree lighting, but protesters objecting to a grand jury not indicting police offers in the Eric Garner case were headed that way also in an attempt to disrupt the ceremony or at least get on television. It was the only time in my life I walked towards Times Square to avoid worse crowds.
New York City has some great iconic holiday sights and experiences, all of which most New Yorkers avoid like the plague. The tree at Rockefeller Center, the windows of Macy’s or Saks Fifth Avenue, the laser light show at Grand Central Terminal are all great things that are mobbed with tourists to the point of not being truly enjoyable unless you are a tourist just happy to be there.
Here are some alternative and authentically New York holiday experiences you can consider to keep more money and sanity through the season.
For alternative shopping options, you should go visit The Kinda Punky Flea Market – Holiday Style is set to take place in Brooklyn at the Lucky 13 Saloon on December 20. I can’t think of a better place to shop for people with good taste. The Lucky 13 Saloon is a cool vestige of pre-insanity Brooklyn and attracts the interesting artists and musicians you thought had been run out of the borough entirely. There is also the Morbid Anatomy Flea Market at The Bell House in Brooklyn (there’s a high potential hipster factor at this one, but it might be worth it).
Plenty of people will buy expensive tickets to see Handel’s Messiah at Carnegie Hall. I went there more than a decade ago and deeply regret not screaming “SLAYER!!!” at the quiet moment between the third and fourth movements. Radio City Music Hall’s holiday show is a by-the-numbers holiday show with the Rockettes and Santa Clause, but there are better shows that will give you an excuse to visit Radio City Music Hall. The Holiday Show in Astoria Queens will fill you to the brim with holiday punk rock goodness from some awesome bands. Astoria is not hard to get to and you’ll get a taste of real New York City punk. If you prefer more traditional holiday classical music, consider instead the holiday concert by the Queens Oratorio Society on December 20 in Queens.
The Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx started on Nov. 21 but it runs into the New Year. I have gone on New Year’s Eve and the crowds were not that bad. You’ll be impressed with the models of New York City landmarks made from plants. The trains are interesting too.
And if you would just rather look at some pretty trees and other holiday decorations, then you can avoid the overcrowded Hades of Rockefeller Center and enjoy the Origami Holiday Tree at the American Museum of Natural History or the UNICEF Snowflakes near Central Park.
The holidays are a time when many of us are reluctantly pushed into public places to go through the motions about being happy about the holidays. Sometimes the very happiness of the holidays are mocking and angering. Sometimes the very image of others’ happiness is a slap in the face, and the holidays give other people’s happiness a particularly cold sting.
There’s no reason for the holidays this year to be any different. A cursory glance at the world at large doesn’t give the impression that there is much to celebrate.
It is my goal again this year, as in previous years, to not go into a single store to buy a Christmas present. I would rather be an antisocial Grinch and do all of my shopping online.
I get enough of the horrendously-behaved crowds in my everyday life. The holidays are a time to reflect on the blessing we have. While living in New York City is one of those blessings, living cheek-by-jowl with millions of other human beings is not. It’s an odd conundrum: We love New York, which wouldn’t be what it is without all of its people, yet a good many of those people are detestable.
But what else are we to do? We can’t live life as disgruntled hermits. We are social creatures and the people who are successful in living outside of society don’t live very good lives.
And besides, New York is beautiful around the holidays. Even the most jaded New Yorker can appreciate how beautiful things can become around this time of year. I embrace the “bah-humbug” aspect of the holidays in every way possible, and even I feel pangs of civic pride to see our city landmarks decked out in their holiday finery.
Here are five things you can do to experience New York City at its Christmastime best:
Gingerbread Lane at the New York Hall of Science consists of record-breaking gingerbread houses and you even get a chance to take home some of the gingerbread once the holidays are over. And the New York Hall of Science is a good place to escape to from the holiday scrum of Manhattan. It is in Queens, the greatest and most American New York City borough.
The Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden has been running for over 20 years and runs until January 19. It features trains that run through beautiful models of some of New York’s greatest landmarks. The models are all made from plants. It’s like a New York-centric Rose Bowl Parade that doesn’t suck. It’s in The Bronx, and if you take some time to stroll through the Botanical Gardens, you will be amazed that you’re in a big city. It will be much less crowded after the holidays.
The Grand Central Terminal holiday light show is going to be crowded. Grand Central Terminal is always horribly crowded but it’s so beautiful that it’s worth it. The holiday light show will make you glad you went there.
Free reading of A Christmas Carol at Housing Works Bookstore Café. More than two dozen writers take turns reading from the Charles Dickens classic at this event. The book store raises money for Housing Works, an AIDS charity. Some free literature will make you feel better about yourself over the holidays.
Time Warner Center’s Holiday Under the Stars is a display of large lighted stars at the Time Warner Center’s large great room and are specially lit in a display that is set to music. The Time Warner Center does not have much to offer the non-millionaire shopper, so here is a chance to enjoy some nice holiday spirit at the center’s expense and maybe avoid some of the horrific crowds that clog other venues.
Holiday markets also abound. Union Square has one, as does Bryant Park, Grand Central Terminal and Columbus Circle. Here is your chance to buy last minute Christmas things or feel OK about doing some real retail non-online shopping this year. These may be crowded but there are enough of them and these are large enough that you should be able to find a nice place to shop among these many markets. They also usually feature local artists selling their work.
Whatever you do, get out there and see the holiday sights. Even if you hate the holidays and want to piss on everyone’s parade, it only counts if you do so in person.
The endless salvos in the American cultural war normally give me a headache and are usually beneath the dignity of comment. But the latest jeremiad against a Fox News host about the race of Santa Claus was informative.
Megyn Kelly, on her program The Kelly File, remarked that Santa Claus is white. (She mentioned that Jesus Christ was white too, and while I’d love to discuss the colorful variations among the 12 tribes of Israel, I’ll instead point out that white people handed over the name Jesus to the Latinos a while ago.)
Kelly was of course buried in a brouhaha of accusations of racism and “look what she said” type coverage, but if you actually watch the damn video, her piece is actually discussing an article on Slate that advocates doing without a white Santa, or a human Santa entirely, and replace him with a penguin in the name of helping nonwhite children love Christmas. Slate’s cultural blogger Aisha Harris recounts her childhood angst at the ubiquity of peckerwood Santa Clauses and thinks that a penguin Santa is a win-win for everyone.
When I was a kid growing up in Yonkers, my brother and I were sent to an afterschool center on weekday afternoons in nearby Eastchester. The kids at the daycare center were mostly white, but sometimes our center would get together with a nearby black organization called CAP (Community Action Program). We would take trips with them and every year we went to their Christmas party.
At every CAP Christmas party Santa Claus appeared and gave out presents, and at CAP, Santa was black. Not only was their Santa black, but he was someone that worked there that the black kids all knew. They laughed hilariously at the black Santa, in part because it was someone they knew and also because it was so obviously NOT Santa Claus.
Like Aisha Harris mentions in her piece on Slate, a non-white Santa doesn’t look quite right, even to a sympathetic non-white audience. It’s an obviously pandering variation awkwardly hammered into place. And children, ever suspicious of adult manipulation into their world, resent such obvious engineering. Harris was right to take umbrage at the black Santa. Even though the adults in her life were doing it for her perceived benefit, it was too much adult interference and that just ain’t right.
Us white kids resented the black Santa, not because we were racist or hated blacks but because we were treated to a needless maiming of a cultural icon that was supposed to be race-neutral.
And this fear of a white Santa is a very telling sign on the part of the multicultural left that’s calling for the head of Megyn Kelly on a charger. Wanting to get rid of white Santa is a tacit acknowledgement of the failure and hopelessness of multiculturalism itself.
If you buy into the belief of Santa Claus and believe that he’s a kindly, saintly man who loves good children, then he certainly loves all the good children of the world and brings them all gifts. That nonwhite children are automatically aggrieved at the sight of a white Santa Claus means that the hopes of fostering an integrated, diverse society is hopeless. If all the races should be equally valued and accepted by everyone, then the traditional white Santa is for everyone too.
If my kids have to stand for a black President, why can’t black kids accept gifts from a white Santa Claus? If multiculturalism is for real, then it’s not a one-way street. If non-white children can’t accept a benevolent white saint who gives them presents out of love, then there’s not much racial harmony in America’s future.
Santa Claus, like many other holiday trappings, developed from European traditions that were adapted to Christianity as it spread westward from the Middle East. Saint Nicholas, the Catholic patron saint of children and sailors and generally agreed to as the basis of Santa Claus, was Greek. If white people invented Santa Claus, then it makes sense he’d be white.
And so even assuming that Kelly was being racially assertive, what makes wanting Santa to look like you wrong? If Aisha Harris’ Christmas penguin catches on, so be it. I’ll be one of the last white fathers telling his kids about the real white Santa Claus.