“There are camels trotting down 51st Street!”
“What?” I thought I’d heard her wrong. I took a sip of my coffee and loosened the scarf around my neck. It was a degree too warm now inside the café. Just moments ago, I had considered I might catch a cold without it on my walk over.
Such is life in New York City in December.
“There are camels outside my office window going down 51st! Seriously. Live, giant camels. There’s, like, five of them!”
Such is life in December in New York City.
In 2009, both my friend Kim and I had somehow managed to move from Birmingham to Manhattan within a few months of each other. We were fresh and new to a city that, in many ways, celebrates the holiday spirit more so than any other on Earth. The camels she spotted from her lofty office window at Rockefeller Center were part of The Living Nativity that announces the Rockettes Radio City Christmas Spectacular every year.
Since those first holiday moments, I’ve come to have my own holiday rituals.
If you’re considering a holiday trip to New York City, let me assure you, she’ll welcome you with open arms. Let me also help guide you so that you don’t miss any of the action.
If it’s a Dickensian, Christmas Carol moment you seek …
Venture first to the Lower East Side’s Tenement Museum, which will–like The Ghost of Christmas Past—whisk you
back in time to the late 1880s. The museum offers tours of 97
Orchard Street, a tenement slum that failed to meet code in
the 1930s. It was boarded up and left intact. Inside the now-
museum, you are surrounded by light fixtures, peeling
wallpaper, diaries, and abandoned household items from the 19th century. This winter, you can sign up for special Thursday night Tasting at the Tenement tours. Over a full meal of traditional immigrant dishes, you listen to incredible true stories
of life in the Lower East Side in the 1800s.
The Lower East Side is now pretty posh, littered with artisan coffeehouses, galleries and small boutiques for holiday shopping.
While there are plenty of Christmas trappings, from perusing the festive independent fashion boutiques on Orchard to stopping in The Ludlow Hotel for a winter respite (the lobby offers couches and a roaring fireplace, as well as a 5-course prix fixe on Christmas Day), this area is all about embracing the city’s Jewish celebrations.
Russ & Daughter’s celebrated their 100th anniversary in 2014. The original walk-up counter deli is famous for the city’s best nosh, and they marked the milestone by opening the Russ & Daughter’s Café for seated dining a few blocks down. There’s a sleek marble bar for solo guests or inviting booths for groups, serving up paper-thin slices of Gaspe Nova smoked salmon, baked rye breads and buckwheat Varnishkas. During the Hanukkah season, it’s the perfect place for a lunch with friends over their famous potato latkes. They make thousands during the season, topping them with delicate dollops of crème fraiche and salmon roe.
It’s a lovely walk from there, crossing into the East Village, past rows of pre-War buildings, fire escapes skeletal and black against bright red brick. Busy sidewalks here are decorated with merry drinkers. It’s in this neighborhood you’ll find some of the best bars and also the oldest bar in New York. Push the heavy front doors open and step off the snowy street into a sawdust-floor saloon called McSorley’s Old Ale House, open since 1854.
Babe Ruth drank here. As did FDR. In 1863, the Civil War draft riots broke out on the doorstep. It’s a museum of treasures, which includes an multitude of letters signed by famous Americans, as well as an original Wanted Poster for John Wilkes Booth. There’s no better time to experience McSorley’s than the holidays, when regulars call for rounds of the menu’s only drinks–light or dark beer–and the beloved-but-lackluster cheese plate. It’s just packaged American cheese, raw onions and a pack of Saltines. In a Christmas mood, the room wears ropes of fresh garland, strung from the busted ceiling fans and the busted clock. Garish tinsel hangs like Spanish moss from priceless moments of American history.
As afternoon flows into evening and amber street lights wink on, casting a sepia hue onto the fresh piles of snow, McSorley’s will turn rowdy.
If it’s something equally old but far more elegant you’re seek, venture to Midtown East for Keen’s Steakhouse.
Keen’s opened 1885. They sold their millionth Mutton Chop (a must-order) in 1935, and like McSorley’s, it’s a
museum, too. Keen’s was formerly a pipe club. They house 90,000 churchwarden pipes here, most of which are hung from the ceiling.
Dining here in December, amidst the dark woods and dapper waiters, with a great glass of Bordeaux and a Porterhouse you can’t possibly finish, it feels more akin to a lavish dinner party in an elegant, old home.
If it’s A Christmas Story you want …
Where can you get more Norman Rockwell than at
Rockefeller Center? The streets are hectic but happy, and
the Salvation Army bell ringers here vie to be the most creative. Last year, this writer was even swooped up in the action, handed a Santa hat and a bell for an impromptu dance session on
the street. (It’s a Miracle on 49th Street that the iPhone video evidence disappeared.)
Everything here is anchored by the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center. It first debuted during the Great Depression in 1933, when workers queued beside it to collect their
paychecks. Ever since, locals and travelers alike brave the cold dark night for the lighting, all ages huddled together to see the magic of a near 100-foot spruce, pine or Douglas fir come ablaze with 45,000 colored lights. The walkway is decorated with a line of brilliant white angels, blowing golden trumpets.
From The Rockettes Christmas Spectacular shows to the shopping deals to the ice skating opportunities, Rockefeller Center is holidays in happy overdrive. Just one corner away, you’ll find the most striking reminder of the true spirit of the season. St. Patrick’s Cathedral stands on the corner of the block at 51st Street, open to guests of all faiths who seek a moment of quiet reflection.
When the cathedral cornerstone was placed in 1858, this land was nearly wilderness. Archbishop John Hughes’ faith that the city would someday grow around the great, Neo-Gothic house of worship proved prophetic. The Cathedral remains, but the wilderness is long gone.
Just blocks away you also have a postcard-perfect moment in Central Park. It’s hard to resist the draw of the jaunty jingle bells on the reins, the cozy blankets and the drivers in top hats. Sure, booking a Carriage Ride through the park is touristy, but I’ll let you in on a secret. Most locals do it at least once a year. There’s no better way to take in the winter wonderland of the park, from icicles hanging off the stone bridges to snow falling softly in the Sheep Meadow.
While we can’t decorate our yards (because we don’t have yards), we rely on our trusted
barkeeps to string up the lights and roll out the plastic decorations. The ultimate example is Rolf’s German Restaurant, located in Gramercy—a neighborhood dripping with
designer Christmas wreaths on impressive Brownstone doorways and bright red ribbons
affixed to grand porch railings.
The room’s low ceiling is covered—every square inch—in garland, bright baubles and white blinking lights. Poinsettias are strapped to the walls. Snowmen, candy canes and plastic elves are positioned wherever space allows. Have a Hot Toddy or a plate of schnitzel.
There are more tacky, fantasy wonderlands to be visited. There’s actually a burgeoning new trend in the city of cocktail bars taking on temporary holiday personalities. The best, and original options are located in the East Village. Boilermaker morphs from an after-work cocktail den into Sippin’ Santa’s Surf Shack. It’s an Elvis-worthy, Hawaiian Christmas inside in both design, music and menu.
Mace—another East Village craft cocktail bar, normally known for inventive use of global spices in drinks – reopens annually as Miracle on Ninth Street, with the large front window frosted in faux snow. Festooned fake presents dangle from the ceiling and holiday songs blast from the stereo. The menus are printed on old holiday greeting cards, and there’s even a blue tinsel, Dreidel-laden Hanukkah Hideaway section in the back, a good-natured nod to Owner Greg Boehm’s Jewish heritage. The bartenders, clad in ugly holiday sweaters and Santa hats, offer up the Bad Santa, a hot milk punch in a tacky St. Nick mug, or this writer’s personal favorite—the Redneck Flip. It’s bourbon and bonded applejack, shaken with a whole egg, alongside a specialty marshmallow-and-Budweiser syrup.
It’s topped with spiced beef jerky bitters and nutmeg.
At the time of writing this,
Birmingham doesn’t have a tacky pop up Christmas bar. I guess you’ll just have to book a flight to New York to visit. Meanwhile, I’ll be in Birmingham. Who else is going to make sure my dad AKA Clark
Griswold makes it safely down the ladder? Happy Holidays, everyone.