Our Englishwoman returns from a long absence with recollections of last year's Christmas adventures and mis-adventures. There will be no more tales from New York sadly, as she is - happily - about to return to good, old England.
I am in the midst of preparing our household for a New York Christmas, or I should say a Christmas in New York. The previous two Christmases we experienced terrible travel delays culminating last year in an aborted trip home. This year we have opted which did for our first two years here to settle down at home and enjoy the most appropriately festive and heartwarming things the city has to offer. We have a breath of fresh air coming from London in the shape of my sister complete with a suitcase filled with custom approved seasonal delicacies. She will be the icing on our cake a cake that I hope she will bring with her.
New York had an unexpected taste of winter at the end of October when a blizzard covered the city and beyond in snow. A great number of houses were without power for a week or more as a result of fallen trees and branches. The trees bent and bowed with the extra weight of the out of season snow resting on their vivid leaves. It was a strange site and the parks were officially closed to snow worshippers. Thereafter the autumn continued to be pleasantly mild which is fortunate as there are plenty of celebrations this time of year that have no connection with snow.
The turnaround in decoration and shop merchandise after the lolling summer months is swift and seamless. On the 1st November gruesome polyester costumes and bags of cheap sweets are replaced on the shelves with turkey and pilgrim inspired table and window decorations.
Thanksgiving in New York City feels eerily like Christmas in London. Street parking spaces are aplenty and there is little traffic both on the local roads and pavements. It is the biggest secular holiday and celebrated pretty much by all. It is particularly lovely as neither presents nor wearing costumes play a part in the festivities. Last year we hosted a large gathering of non-American friends (as locally it is a family affair). Like the traditional British Christmas the menu revolves around a giant roast (or, alarmingly, deep fried) turkey that continues to feed throughout the weekend disguised in various dishes. To serve with our turkey amongst other yummy things I planned a pumpkin gratin, which I had learned to make in France moons ago. The day before Thanksgiving there was not a pumpkin on the shelves (only tinned). They had all been bought a month or more earlier and were sitting on people's doorsteps going mouldy and being pecked at by birds. The local supermarket seemed surprised that I even wanted a pumpkin. I eventually made the gratin with calabaza a type of West Indian pumpkin. Thank goodness for this multicultural society and for my dear neighbour for suggesting, as well as eventually eating, it.
Then on Black Friday, the turkey carcass still bubbling away to make stock, the winter holiday season hits your every sense. This must seem rather late by current British standards, but rest assured, if Thanksgiving did not feature on the calendar the Christmas trees would appear straight after Halloween. There are shop aisles set aside for selling tacky merchandise all year round and plenty of money to be made.
The Christmas tree sellers, many from Canada, pitch their stands on the pavements. The French Canadian selling on our street lives in an old beaten up van from which he guards his pricey trees for the month leading up to Christmas. The wafts of wonderful balsam scent battle through the air and the stalls are lit in the evening by lovely glowing white bulbs. From afar they look like mini Christmas markets. If I had my way they would sell mugs of gluhwein to warm and further scent the air, not to mention take the edge off spending $150 on a tree. This will remain a total fantasy sadly, as the New York City licensing laws do not allow wine or spirits to be sold even in supermarkets, let alone on a street stall. In my earlier years as a novice New York resident I did venture to our local wine merchant with the intention of buying a bouquet garni to make a speedy vat of mulled wine. I was brusquely reminded that they were not licensed to sell food. On my next trip to the supermarket I made the same request to a typically lost looking member of staff. No, came the reply, we are not licensed to sell wine and with that there was no point in my explaining any further about cloves, dried orange peel or cinnamon sticks. It is rare that any attempt is made to understand or appease a foreigner. This was a good lesson in realising that as a foreigner I am generally not understood not only because of my accent but because I expect an assistant to know and to help. The second lesson to learn is that the reply or sometimes lack of reply should just be accepted, one should not persist in explaining or enquiring. The first answer (it may not even be a verbal one) is definitive.
The Christmas Tree at the Metropolitan Museum with its vast display of 18th Century Neopolitan Crche figures is a delight to behold. It is beautifully cared for with no financial constraints. These Christmas decorations are the perfect excuse to make the fairly long trip up to the Upper East Side by subway and bus. My little boy and I venture up there on one of those endless school days off and in addition to appreciating the well cared for tree we educate ourselves by hurtling through the Amour and Ancient Egyptian Galleries. A less obvious treat at the Met are the five monumental floral displays in the Entrance Hall. These are spectacular and always worth popping in to see if you are close by. They are one of the few things on view you do not need to pay to see. The amazing weekly task of erecting these displays is undertaken by a Dutch man named Remco van Vliet. The flowers are paid for by a legacy from Lila Acheson Wallace and her Reader's Digest fortune.
The glorious, but unkempt, trees which line the streets of our neighbourhood have pretty much all lost their leaves by early December. The leafless view from our 1st floor bedroom window now includes not only One World Trade Centre in mid build but also the great Woolworth Building with its green patina pitched roof. By night these distant lights of Manhattan are overshadowed by the 5-story Brownstone family home opposite us, which each year is painstakingly decked with lights at every window, characters on all ledges and giant wooden Nutcrackers flanking the entrance. The first year we were here I was rather aghast at the spectacle opposite but I confess when the display came down in early January I missed it as our Drawing Room was plunged into darkness. Sitting at any of our front facing windows it feels like we have our very own private Christmas spectacular. When coming home by taxi in the dark it is also a useful landmark for the driver to identify.
Last year we ventured to pastures new to see the lights. Dyker Heights in the deepest and darkest (but not in December) Brooklyn is top billing when it comes to Christmas lighting. This is a predominantly American Italian neighbourhood that prides itself in taking illumination to the ultimate level. Here we are out of classic Brownstone territory. The houses resemble Lilliputian palaces, or at least, that's what you can glimpse beneath the gigantic, all singing, all dancing carnival of Christmas lights. As long as we are living in Brooklyn this show merits a few hours of car hire to cruise 76th Street and the neighbouring blocks. It is genuinely jaw dropping; the electricity bills must be astronomical. The electrics in our house would never allow for such extravagance: in the summer if I feel flush enough to have the air conditioning on I won't dare vacuum at the same time for risk of the circuit fusing. Multi tasking is to be avoided at all costs.
On the opposite side of the taste spectrum is another annual favourite The Nutcracker ballet is charm itself in a city where I often feel in exile. The American National Ballet at the Lincoln Centre performs the George Balanchine choreographed, enchanting performance of Tchaikovsky's score accompanying Hoffman's classic tale. This is our Boxing Day Treat this year. The term Boxing Day here has of course no meaning at all I dread to think what the name would conjure up in a New York mind. It is not at all customary to wish strangers or even acquaintances a Happy Christmas in this city and this is something I rather miss. One place I may receive such a thing is at the glorious Trinity Church on Wall Street, which is where we will go for the service on Christmas morning.
The Morgan Library is a museum situated in JP Morgan's Brownstone house on Madison Avenue. His fabulous library is adjacent and a glass roof covering what was the piazza courtyard has now entwined the two buildings together into a marvelous space with interesting exhibitions and lectures besides. Early in December they have the perfect excuse to put on a jolly performance of the Christmas Carol Dickens' original manuscript for the book has the best seat in the house safely encased in glass. It is all rather magical as Morgan's library is a feast for the eyes without any added theatricals. Throughout the afternoon Scrooge, various ghosts and the Author himself mingle and interact with the visitors. They pull off a wonderful Victorian celebration without being in any way kitsch.
That cannot be said of my other newfound seasonal ritual. Together with a friend who has both a car and gumption we venture to the Brooklyn Terminal Market. Here, amongst the wholesale fresh fruit and vegetables and the West Indian goods stores, you find an Aladdin's cave of festive merchandise for each season. This is Lapides, which in December is home to every sized bauble in all colours, reams of ribbon, hundreds of Poinsettia, yards of garlands of balsam and pine and wreaths, all ready to decorate as takes your fancy. Each month chez Lapides there is something to celebrate. This place is a hoot and, as it operates mainly for the wholesale market, by the time my friend and and I have dodged the potholes and found our way most other clients have been and gone.
New York city does not lack or tire of winter holiday activities there is so much money to be made and a little festive spirit is probably thrown in too. December will no doubt fly by and we will see in the New Year, our sixth Stateside.