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.
Your guide to finding sane holiday spots
Among the many holiday traditions that we go through are finding the fine balance between indulging in all the requisite holiday traditions with children while not creating a burning hatred of the holidays within yourself.
Considering that I live in one of the largest urban centers of the known universe, I am very much averse to crowds and would rather not go where there is a crush of people. And it’s not that these are New York crowds that makes my hatred of crowds so strong, I’ve found that in places like Atlanta, where the crowds are often suburbanites with not concept of urban life or shared space, people are more likely to get on your nerves and not know how to move or act in a crowded space. New York has more than its share of clueless retards who don’t know how to ride an escalator or even walk down a hallway, but there is at least a baseline population of those that do that can make life here bearable.
So the holidays tend to bring the tourists and other urban amateurs within the five boroughs to see the sights and sounds. We need their tourist dollars to help keep this show afloat, but we can see a lot of beautiful holiday stuff without having to endure the hoard of vapid slow-walkers that make visiting our beautiful city a shit show.
When some of my family wanted to head to Times Square the day after Christmas a few years ago, I thought they were out of their minds. I still went along with them anyway because I didn’t want to miss out on spending some time with family. While I was trying to navigate my way out of the giant M&Ms World store, I vowed to no god that I would avoid crushing holiday crowds at all cost.
I am very lucky and in a rare position as a New York City dweller in that I have regular access to an automobile. Part of that is a function of where in the city I live. I’m in a more suburban part of Eastern Queens. I’m still in the thick of a crowded city, but I’m in an area where driving a car is not the abysmal insanity that it is in Manhattan or parts of Brooklyn. That gives us options to get to places that are off limits to a lot of my family and friends, including people with kids, so take my advice with a grain of salt.
I had a day off of work and we managed to get our brood, along with the help of grandparents, to Hicks Nurseries on Long Island. It has a lot of beautiful holiday stuff there – really nice trees and ornaments that lend dignity and beauty to the holiday. They also have a lot of the schlocky crap you’d expect people from Long Island to love (sorry Long Island friends but it’s true).
Hicks Nurseries on a weekday is a good time, on the weekend it’s a madhouse. It’s a nice madhouse and a nice place to get Christmas stuff, but a madhouse nonetheless – their credit card readers are also ancient and it declined my credit card even though it wasn’t overdrawn or anything.
While I try not to simply phone it in for the holidays, I want to lead by example for the children. If your kids see you going apeshit over Christmas, they’re going to go apeshit over Christmas too. If you act like Santa is maybe no big deal, then your kids won’t ask to stand in line for an hour to meet a man in a Santa suit. So when I saw people lining up an hour ahead of time to meet “Santa” at Hicks, I knew I didn’t want to linger. We did buy a tree though despite their credit card malfeasance.
For a good Santa with little to no waiting, head to Old Westbury Gardens. It’s a worthwhile place to visit any time of the year. It’s the former estate of wealthy attorney and industrial heir John Shaffer Phipps that is now open to the public and well preserved. There are interesting events there all year round. We brought our kids there for an arts & crafts event and discovered that they have a Santa Claus there on the weekends. There was no waiting. It was free (with admission to the grounds) and the Santa was friendly. Our girls did not want to sit on Santa’s lap and even expressed some skepticism afterwards (“Santa didn’t say ‘Ho, ho ho,’” one of our girls observed).
I’m very much looking forward to the holidays this year, and not just because I’m going to be getting some nice gifts and eat delicious food, but because I’m going to be spending more time with family, including my smart and tough daughters. Our family has had a lot of down moments this year, with death and illnesses putting a damper on everything. But getting to take time away from the busy workday and put in time with family, where it counts, is something to be joyous about, even in the most jaded of times.