There’s no place like New York at holiday time.
New York is at its most atmospheric during the holiday season. I was born in Manhattan, and I am not immune to the city’s considerable charms come December.
I like to bundle up, layering against the chill that whips between skyscrapers, and simply walk amid the crowds. New York’s busy streets take on new meaning at this time of year, as people navigate the snowy sidewalks, jostle with shopping bags in hand and dart into cafes to meet friends, while visitors from around the world meander wide-eyed, taking it all in.
Of course, the tree at Rockefeller Center is an iconic image, and rightly so. Every year I make a pilgrimage to salute this enduring symbol of the season. The tree lighting remains a spectator sport, not unlike the New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square. Back in college, my roommate and I waited six hours on a particularly frigid night to secure the perfect spot for the very first tree lighting of the year. We also skated beneath the tree at the compact rink. It’s a must-do, if only once.
The very best place to ice skate is at the pop-up rink behind the New York Public Library in Bryant Park, where skating is free. This is a local favorite. People gravitate here during their lunch hours, for evening dates and on weekends with their families. After a few passes around the rink, wander to Celsius, a temporary two-story white confection that looks as if it were spun from ice. Take a seat beneath a heat lamp on one of the lounge-y sofas, order hot chocolate and watch the skaters. Then wander among the artisan kiosks in the European-style holiday market.
Strolling down Fifth Avenue to gaze upon the fantastical department store windows was a rite of passage for those of us who grew up in New York. Over the years, many stores have shuttered and others have scaled back the elaborate designs, but the tradition of complicated mechanical storyland tableaux is still very much honored at Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year.
No one does the Nutcracker better than the New York City Ballet. Where else does the Christmas tree grow from 12 to 40 feet to audible gasps from the audience? The sheer scope of the performance with 90 dancers, 60 musicians and colorful wonderland sets make Balanchine’s fantasy come to life.
Radio City Music Christmas Spectacular epitomizes the city’s holiday spirit. Tickets are not cheap and they have to be booked far in advance, that’s true, but when the Rockettes start their synchronized high kicks, you can’t help but feel you are in exactly the right place at precisely the perfect time.
As an antidote to the “big holiday” vibe uptown, I like to veer down to Greenwich Village to Washington Square Park. I order a cappuccino from one of the many cafes in the artsy neighborhood and plant myself on a bench to people watch. There are brooding chess players, scampering children, mellow folk guitarists and tightly wound cellists, flamboyant magicians, NYU students playing hacky sack and dogs tumbling on the frosty grass. As evening slips into night, the 45-foot Christmas tree that sits beneath the famed marble arch twinkles with hundreds of lights, casting a Victorian glow so sublime you can almost imagine Henry James stepping out of one of the brownstones that flanks the park.
To tap into the glamour of New York, I plan for a proper cocktail at Bemelmans Bar nestled inside The Carlyle, a luxe hotel on Central Park. The bar, with its whimsical murals of the city created by Ludwig Bemelmans, author of the Madeline books, is a perfect perch for weary travelers. Time it right and you may find yourself swept beside the piano singing holiday carols.
A few blocks away stands the Plaza Hotel. As famous as it is and as touristy as it may seem, don’t let that keep you from ogling its opulent decorations. This year, the quirky fashion designer Betsy Johnson has created the decorations in honor of fictional resident Eloise. If you can secure a table for high tea in Palm Court, do it. Generations of mothers, daughters and grandmothers have gathered here in the gold-gilded, palm-fringed lobby tearoom for dainty tea sandwiches and buttery scones, and you should too.
Although I’m not Jewish, friends have opened doors to Hanukkah traditions that go beyond Chinese food on Christmas Eve, a New York ritual among many Jewish families. Ever since 1654, when Jews landed in the city that was then known as New Amsterdam, Hanukkah has been celebrated here. Now the city claims the largest menorah in the world, which soars to 32 feet and weighs 4,000 pounds. Every night for eight nights, this massive menorah is lit at the entrance to Central Park at 59th Street around sunset.
New York also happens to be home to some of the country’s best Kosher restaurants, including a couple of particularly unique ones, like The Prime Grill on West 56th Street, a glatt steakhouse, and Le Marais on West 46th Street, a Kosher French bistro.
Perhaps the event that most encompasses the spirit of the holidays is the secular Winter Solstice Celebration at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which this year will take place from December 17 to 19. Making a pilgrimage to Harlem will reward you with a vibrant experience that involves artists, musicians and dancers from around the world. The cathedral with its 150-foot ceiling and cascade of eaves is widely believed to have the best acoustics in New York. Ultimately, joining the fellowship of hundreds of other people in this most beautiful place to reflect on the year that’s passed and in anticipation of the year to come is a fitting way to mark the holiday season, which is, after all, defined by gratitude.