Who can resist the holiday season in New York? When the city transforms itself from the hard-working, hard-living global Gotham city, all sharp elbows and ambition, into the most festive place on earth. Even the most cynical New Yorkers have to admit that the city puts on a spectacular show, dressed in a thick robe of white snow and wrapped in evergreen garlands and millions of twinkling lights.
It’s also when the city is at its buoyant best. Streets ring to the sound of the Salvation Army’s silver bells, New Yorkers and tourists spin figure eights around the city’s twelve ice rinks and Central Park is transformed into a winter wonderland full of people sledding and learning to snowshoe. In a city famous for its cutting-edge art and theatre, winter sees the show move out onto the sidewalk, embracing everyone in one great big festive bear hug.
Kicking off the holiday season on the 27th November is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, an annual extravaganza of giant helium balloons, floats, waving celebrities and marching bands. You can get a bird’s-eye view down Central Park West if you head to the second or third floor of the Time Warner Centre. Kids will particularly love the outsized balloons of cartoon characters and superheroes. Catch a sneak peek of them the night before when they are inflated outside the American Museum of Natural History (public viewing is 4pm to 8pm).
If you’re here during the holidays, let’s face it, you’re going to indulge in some of those inevitable seasonal traditions. You will want to see the angels and tree at the Rockefeller Centre – here since 1931 and now hung with 30,000 lights – you’ll go to Radio City Hall for the Rockettes high-kicking Christmas show and you’ll tap dance on the super-sized floor piano at FAO Schwartz, New York’s most famous toy store. Nor will you be able to resist skimming across the ice of Wollman Rink (adult/child US$11.25/6), surrounded by the twinkling lights of downtown skyscrapers.
No need to stick to Central Park for sledding – Prospect Park has some of Brooklyn’s best hills and homes in Dyker Heights get covered from foundation to roof in crazy Christmas lights. Just beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, beside the East River, Jane’s Carousel is a beautifully restored merry-go-round dating from 1922. It’s housed in a weather-proof glass structure and kids love to ride the magical hand-carved horses. When frozen fingers and pink cheeks finally call a halt to the fun retreat to Jacques Torres Chocolate (66 Water St) for a decadent hot chocolate.
Up in the Bronx, the New York Botanical Garden has one of the city’s great kid-friendly traditions, the Holiday Train Show. Replica models of New York landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty and the Yankee Stadium, are fashioned out of amazing flora and provide the backdrop for a quarter-mile long toy train track. On the 13th December, it’s even worth taking the ferry across to Staten Island for the surreal candlelight tour (adult/child US$22/10) of Historic Richmond Town, a preserved in amber site peopled by ‘interpreters’ dressed in period costume going about their wholesome 17th-century traditions.
But the holiday season wouldn’t be complete without shopping for treats. Don’t get waylaid in hipster downtown, midtown’s famous Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue simply do it better. Macy’s, after all, was the first store to have an ‘in-house’ Santa in 1862 and was also the pioneer of festive window themes. A century of practice has made Macy’s Santaland a stunner. Other dazzling displays are the storybook windows at Saks, the cool, contemporary themes at Barney’s, and the sophisticated scenes at Bergdorf Goodman, which include couture fashions and antiques. After hours of demanding retail therapy dine at Keens steak house, a New York institution with an interior lined with dark wood paneling and oil paintings.
Great gifts aren’t confined to New York’s grand stores, holiday markets and craft fairs offer unique and artful souvenirs. Local purveyors set up shop in Union Square, Columbus Circle and Bryant Park. Brooklyn’s Winter Flea market is also fun with hundreds of vendors selling handmade jewelry, wooden toys and artisan crafts in the Art Deco Williamsburg Savings Bank on Saturday and Sunday. At Columbus Circle you can browse the market and then load your goodies in a horse drawn carriage for a romantic jaunt through Central Park.
This marathon of festive cheer builds to its inevitable climax on New Year’s Eve when millions of revelers descend on Times Square for the midnight crystal ball drop when confetti rains down just like a colourful snowburst eddying on the frigid breeze. Raucous parties, black-tie dinners, concerts and fireworks chime in across the city. Webster Hall claims to have the biggest balloon drop in the world, The Carlyle hosts an A-game gala and the Classic Harbor Line yacht casts off into the bay for a front row view of the fireworks. In an unusual outpouring of benevolence the hardened Gothamite heart of New York melts for a moment and New Yorkers embrace the New Year with heartfelt goodwill to all men.
This piece appeared in the Autumn/Winter edition of Royal Jordanian’s inflight magazine.