For those of us who’ve watched movies like Miracle on 34th Street or Home Alone, there is something fairytale-esque about New York City at Christmas time. With its streets and yellow cabs immortalised in these festive films, New York has something special in the air during the ‘holidays’, as Christmas is called on this side of the pond.
In between unpacking and settling into a new place, I’ve been filling my first few weeks on the East Coast (and my first Christmas in America) with as much festive fun as possible. Even walking down the street is enough to make you feel merry and bright, as every house has at least a wreath hanging on the door, if not giant inflatable snowmen in the garden and enough Christmas lights to power a small town.
One of the most famous locations at this time of year is Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. If you can cope with the crowds – and in December they’re even bigger than usual – then a walk up towards Central Park will reward you with the sight of the wonderful Christmas window displays. Macy’s started the trend in the 1870s, when it changed its windows for December, and ever since, the city’s high-end department stores have competed for the most impressive display.
I wasn’t quite expecting the extravagance on show, or the monitored queues required to keep the crowds in order. There were mechanical moving puppets of classic fairytales at Saks, accompanied by New York-centric captions (“Sleeping Beauty had trouble adjusting to the city that never sleeps”); dainty Art-Deco style city proposals depicted at Tiffany & Co; and different categories of ‘The Arts’ at Bergdorf Goodman, every detail intricately designed on topics ranging from architecture to music (of course, it was only to be expected that my favourite was the window dedicated to literature).
The windows at Macy’s, original instigator of the Christmas window trend and inspiration for the original Miracle on 34th Street film, were more typically ‘Christmassy’, with a little boy imagining what Christmas would be like on other planets, eventually setting off to explore them with Santa. Even well past their bedtimes at almost 10pm, there were children with their noses all but pressed up against the glass, their eyes in awe of the spectacle in front of them. You could almost see them imagining that they too, could shoot off into space with Santa Claus.
Another attraction, this time standing tall at the Rockefeller Centre Plaza, is the tree, the most famous Christmas tree in America, a Norwegian Pine that takes pride of place in the middle of Manhattan, drawing incredible numbers of locals and visitors alike to see it lit up in all its glory. The flags are gold, the statues are angelic, and the nutcrackers line the ice rink, the latter one of many that pop up during this season.
These ice rinks bring a real winter wonderland feel to the city, whether it’s the The Rink at Rockefeller Plaza, where people of all ages skate in the shadow of the 85ft Christmas tree; the free ice rink at Bryant Park, up against the New York Public Library; and my own favourite, Wollman Rink at the south end of Central Park. As cheesy as it sounds, the sight of skaters gliding along to Christmas music, framed by the city skyline, really did feel a little bit magical.
Even if you can’t get tickets to the Rockette’s famous high-kicking Christmas Spectacular, it’s still worth a visit to Radio City Music Hall. Just around the corner from the Rockefeller Plaza, Radio City is adorned with decorations and bright lights, not to mention its own equally spectacular Christmas tree.
Here, and on almost every corner in Manhattan, there are Salvation Army volunteers singing and dancing and jingling bells to raise money – making shoppers feel festive for a good cause. And talking of shopping, as well as the usual suspects that are around all year, special holiday markets pop up across the city, from Columbus Circle at the corner of Central Park, to Union Square at 14th Street.
In a city like New York, there’s something to suit all tastes, not just the traditional. A perfect example of this was the Penguin-sponsored event, ‘What the Dickens?’, held at Housing Works Bookstore in Soho, a not-for-profit bookshop and cafe where all proceeds go towards HIV/Aids charities.
I went along for their annual marathon reading of Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol,’ and was in my absolute element. For book lovers, it doesn’t get much better than this. After some actual Christmas carols to start off the afternoon, a roster of New York’s most prominent writers took it in turn to read aloud from the classic novel, bringing the tale to life amongst fairy lights and wall upon wall of books.
There are countless Christmas events taking place here – far more than I can fit into my first festive season on this side of the Atlantic – and they’ll continue on into the New Year. But fans of all those Christmas films can rest assured: New York City more than lives up to its reputation for Christmas spirit, and despite the crowds, at this time of year it really does feel as if there’s a little bit of magic in the air.
Wherever you’re reading this from, I hope you have a very Merry Christmas!