Take A Trip With Me Through My 12 Faves Of Christmas
1.) Holiday Decorations
Alright, we’ve been here before. You know I’m a decorating fiend. Every inch of my house is decorated, even my office. I got bows hanging where bows should never be hanging.
It’s a long story about how it got like this, and it goes back to my childhood and my annual winter doldrums that I felt as early as age ten. I think there is some biological reason why kids, as they grow older, tend to fall asleep later. By the time I was ten, I was no longer dozing off at 10:45 after the weather segment on the 10 O’clock News (something I explored in this post about isolation I wrote during the March COVID-19 lockdown). Winter was especially hard because it got dark so early – around 5 p.m. In the summer, having daylight until a couple hours before bedtime felt better, but in the winter, I became feeling the anxiety of being alone at night before we even sat down to dinner.
These were the days before cable television and the internet, so nighttime was very lonely.
Except during Christmas.
I took my responsibility of running up and down four flights of stairs to turn off Christmas lights at night very seriously. When I felt sad or lonely, I simply kept the lights on a little longer and enjoyed looking at them. I had my favorites; the silhouettes of a candle and a Christmas Tree framed in colored lights; a trio of blinking bells that my mother inexplicably threw away years ago, and I scoured eBay to find them recently; ancient blow molds. I have memories of decorating. Climbing out the window onto the second-floor terrace as my dad tied Santa’s sleigh and reindeer to the railing, feeling the rush of crisp cold November air hitting my face and hearing the drone of nighttime city noise; watching planes fly past a few miles north on final approach to LaGuardia Airport. We would make runs to Pergament (and old-school mini Home Depot) in Middle Village for new soldiers, or to Lewis’ of Woodhaven or Woolworth for some new lights. We’d park on the side streets and watch people decorate as we walked to Jamaica Avenue. I remember driving home with my mom at night with new decorations, marveling at the decorated houses and apartments.
I remember sitting at a red light, looking up at an apartment window, framed in lights. I’d watch one half of the lights blink, then the other, without any specific sequence; the first half, then the second, then the first, then the first again, then the second twice.
Then there’s the classic C9 Colored lights that used to hang around the outside of the house, and their giant glass bulbs that shattered easily, but looked like tiny pieces of colored candy. I went out of my way to find them a few years ago and hung them from my driveway fence as a reminder of Christmases long ago. I also hung them around my office window inside, so the bulbs don’t get weather-beaten.
I love lights so much I decorate my yard in them in the summer – fake palm trees wrapped in white lights, colorful lights around the pergola and strands of big-bulbs hanging over the sitting area near the pool. Frankly, I do it because it reminds me of Christmastime.
2) Giving And Wrapping Presents
People think I’m nuts, but I love to wrap presents. Nothing brings me more joy than the see people tear open wrapping paper on Christmas and see it clutter the living room, or kitchen or wherever we’re opening presents. It’s annoys my mother, who prefers to just throw things in bags and cover it with some tissue paper. I prefer wrapping, bows and ribbons, even as I spent 20 minutes every December 23 trying to wrap a ribbon around two presents and make it into the perfect bow.
I prefer giving to receiving. I know it sounds kind of arrogant, but I absolutely love when I find something and think “oh my God, this is perfect for X.” I usually shop for my cousins, their young kids and my partner, but I often find a random gift that is perfect for a friend or older relative and will give it to them.
Then I go, pick out the perfect wrapping paper, and sit in my room wrapping them while watching a Christmas-themed show or listening to Christmas carols. I’m not a very good wrapper – its a running joke among my relatives and my friends – but I don’t care.
I was told one year that giving a gift unsolicited is improper, because the expectation is that one would give a gift in return. I’m just letting y’all know now, if I give you a gift, its because I like you and found something I think would be perfect for you, and no, I do not expect one in return.
Though gifts are always welcome and appreciated, they are never expected.
3.) Manhattan in December
It’s one of my very favorite traditions. (One that had to be set aside this year). To walk through Manhattan at Christmastime and look at the decorations; the store windows; the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, the Bryant Park Winter Market. My mother and I have started taking the trip annually before my uncle’s glee club’s annual concert. We’ll ride the ferry in from Rockaway – a hilarious thing to do on a cold December day, and walk around before meeting my family for dinner at a nice, decorated restaurant. Then we’ll go see the concert and run for the 9:15 QM15 express bus home.
Manhattan is an amazing place to be at any time of the year, even in the hot smelly sultry summers. Have you ever walked through Central Park on a summer afternoon? Or even a fall or spring afternoon? Perhaps no time of the year is better though than Christmastime.
Songs have been written about New York at Christmas, and movies have been set in the city in December. Who can forget Miracle on 34th Street or Home Alone 2: Lost In New York.
There are always must sees: Obviously the Rockefeller Center tree, but also the windows at Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue (and the light show that plays on the building’s façade every 15 minutes at night); Bryant Park’s Winter Market gives you a European feel and offers some great ethnic and local food and homemade gift ideas; and the oversized strand of colorful Christmas lights along Avenue of the Americans, as well as the pyramid of ornaments that piles on a fountain a block away, one of which seemed to have rolled away, are among my favorite.. Experience Christmas from the vantage point of a mouse.
There’s one stop I always make, despite not necessarily being very religious, and that’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral to check out the ornate, life-size Nativity scene inside, and make a few offerings to the saints for my relatives who have passed.
Not this year though. Perhaps I’ll stop in over the summer.
4.) My Christmas Village
In December, 1993 my mother picked me up from school one afternoon. It was rare she did this as we lived two blocks away. I could literally see my school from my pool deck and attic. I thought it was strange and when I jumped in the van, she told me to look in the back. There, I spotted a big box with a picture of four ceramic Christmas villages houses – a bank, a grocery, an inn and a church. I was so excited. Since we had moved the Christmas tree into the kitchen solarium the year before from the living room, we had gotten rid of the tiny plastic houses we arranged underneath it. The four ceramic houses that year were the first in a collection that has grown substantially over the past 27 years. What was once a tiny town under a tree, has grown to something resembling a snowy Los Angeles. Over the years we added more buildings – a City Hall, a police and fire station, a lighthouse, a barn, a windmill, a train station, a post office, a library, a Catholic cathedral, a radio station (paying homage to my college life), a rec center, a beer hall, a school, two breweries and a movie theater. We’ve had some come and go – three of the original four buildings remain, but the grocery store is long gone; we had a ski slope and a gondola that stopped working and our original lighthouse stopped turning.
This year, we added a few more pieces – a camper, an amusement park ride and a sushi bar! Yes, a sushi bar.
It takes anywhere between six and eight hours to build the entire village, which I usually do on a Saturday or Sunday about two weeks before Christmas. I started early in the morning, 8 or 9 a.m. and finish in time for dinner if nothing goes wrong. Often something goes wrong. A bulb burns out in a building way in the back, requiring me to take apart part of the display and change it and then redo it. There is some yelling and cursing and promises that this will be the “last year I do this shit.” But when its done, its just amazing to sit and look at and it always seems worth it. When it comes down in January, planning begins for next year’s display. The sushi bar I bought last August.
Next year, the village will have a new business coming in, one in which few of us would be happy about. (Hint: it rhymes with Ball Fart)
5.) Yankee Candle‘s Christmas Eve scented candle
Years ago, my mother bought a small candle from a local drug store. It was a small red candle called “holly berry.” When she lit it, the scent that enveloped the room was that of a sugary, fruity sweet scent that We finished the candle that Christmas, but for the entire year, I couldn’t get the smell out of my head.
For years, my Christmas scent of choice was pine. It still is in my bedroom. That sharp pine scent just screams Christmas, so much so that for years I would buy an extra pine-scented candle, hide it downstairs and take a sniff at random times during the year to remind myself of Christmas.
But that sugar berry scent was divine. We never figured out what the brand name of that candle was and I spent several Christmases sniffing around Bath and Body Works and Yankee Candle looking for something close to that scent, like Juan Ponce de Leon looking for the Fountain of Youth.
One day, at a Yankee Candle store in Long Island, I picked up a candle and sniffed. There it was. That sugary, sweet berry smell that had eluded me. I looked at the name of the candle – Christmas Eve.
That year I bought two, then two more, eventually keeping four extra candles in stock at all times. Yankee Candle has a nasty habit of discontinuing some of my favorite scents (Ocean Walk, Freshly Cut Grass), so I tend to overbuy just in case. Now Christmas Eve is the scent of choice in my house in December. Every December 24th, I put Christmas Eve tea lights in the tea light holders, votives in the votive holders, and light two jar candles. The entire house smells like that scent. I buy a few more to replace the ones I burned and hid them in a basement cabinet, and just like the pine candles from many years earlier, take a whiff every now and then when I need a little Christmas cheer during the year.
6.) A Christmas Carol
Surprisingly, as a child, I really didn’t like this story. Dickens scared me. I was terrified by A Tale Of Two Cities – the ending still creeps me out, Oliver Twist made me scared to ask for seconds and Great Expectations made me frightened of old ladies.
But as I grew older, I began to appreciate the message behind A Christmas Carol! In college, I was even invited to play the jolly and eccentric Ghost of Christmas Present in a play – which I kept secret from much of my family because I did not want a huge crowd there in case I fucked up, and also because the costume made me like a little, shall we say, vibrant. I wore a giant sequenced robe and cap, a grey wig and glitter eyeshadow. The subtle digs at Scrooge made the part worth playing and it brought me a new appreciation for the story.
After that, I tried to watch as many performances of it as I could. I remember going with my aunt and uncle and cousins to see Patrick Stewart’s one-man version of it on New Year’s Day, 1995. I also managed to find a bootleg video of the Ben Vereen musical from the mid 1990s. But my favorite will also be the 1984 George C. Scott version, which I watch every Christmas morning after midnight mass. In many ways, Scott’s Scrooge in the final scenes reminds me of my grandfather, a Christmas nut himself who died when I was four – with the same smile, big nose and mumbled laughter.
I also enjoy reading it during the Christmas season and even purchased my own little handheld copy of it
7.) Shiny Christmas Orbs
In college, my friend Alicia called me one day in early November. She said she had tickets to see Dane Cook at Madison Square Garden and wanted to know if I wanted to go. I said sure. I caught the last express bus into Manhattan that Saturday to meet her. It was raining, so to get from the bus stop in Herald Square to MSG, I walked through Macy’s. It was less than a week after Halloween and the Christmas decorations were already going up.
As I walked through Macy’s, I marveled at the dark red ornamental pieces that workers were having, surrounding the cursive “Believe” signs.
The department store’s “Believe” holiday motif has always been appealing to me. There’s something delightfully joyful and modern about glistening globes and ornaments in bold red colors. The cool, metallic hues remind me of the city at Christmastime. I love when they come in different shapes – round, oblong, onion-shaped, teardrop shaped. Some have openings in the middle that make them look like geodes.
The traditional globe-shaped ornaments are one of my favorite Christmas pastimes, whether its the giant ones in Rockefeller Center, or the different-shaped ones hanging from the ceiling at Macy’s, or the light up ones that hang from the tree in my yard. The ways they reflect lights and shine in both the daytime and nighttime seem to add to the bright, joyful ambiance.
I even went so far as to get shiny orb decorations to put in a vase in my bathroom with fake poinsettias. The orbs, fastened to the end of long sticks that fit inside the vase like floral stems, reflect the lights in the room and give off a warm glow.
When was a young kid, my uncle made me try eggnog (the virgin kind with no alcohol) and I immediately fell in love with it. I confess that I actually like eggnog better without the liquor than with, but either way is fine for me.
My appreciation for eggnog really started in college, when while out shopping with friends, I came across Eggnog-flavored ice cream in a supermarket. I had realized later that I was mixing up eggnog with egg creme, but I ate the entire pint of ice cream and loved it. The next year, I bought myself a carton of eggnog, mixed rum in it, and sipped my way through the holiday season.
While there are other holiday drinks that I enjoy – hot buttered rum, ginger ale and Fireball whisky – eggnog is, to me, the quintessential holiday libation.
My brand of choice is Pennsylvania Dutch, which mixes the eggnog with both rum and whisky. There have been several Christmases that I’m gotten pretty drunk off the nog, one of my favorites being one in which I cracked drunk jokes that left my then-90-year-old grandmother in stitches.
I usually buy my first bottle right after Thanksgiving, and half a glass or two on the weekend, sometime while watching Christmas movies or while taking a hot bath surrounded by Christmas candles.
One of my favorite things to do is pour out the bottle of eggnog into a punch bowl and drink it as a punch. All I need now is a punchbowl (future Christmas gift idea folks)
9.) A Charlie Brown Christmas
I could watch it 100 times, and this year I’ve watched it at least a dozen, to the point that it drives my mother and my friends crazy. I can almost recite it word for word and I even have my own “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree”
A Charlie Brown Christmas is, without question, my favorite holiday program. From the first piano keys and opening scene of the snowy pond with children skating, its comforting, heartwarming and joyful.
Christmas time is here/happiness and cheer/fun for all the children call their favorite time of year
I’ve always felt a personal connection to Charlie Brown – a social misfit who is unfairly maligned, besotted with bad luck, but ever hopeful and optimist. As I got older, the show only seemed to make more sense. I understand Charlie Brown’s depression and misunderstanding of the holidays. I often found myself feeling let down by the holidays when I was a teenager and young adult. I made up for it with decorations and parties and everything else on this list, but it was many years before I really felt the true meaning of the season.
I regularly find myself getting mad at Violet, and that cheap-ass Regina George; that other bratty girl with the plaid dress and bow, for being so mean to Charlie Brown, and marvel how fast they go from hating him and his tree, to liking the tree and wanting to sing Christmas carols with Charlie after he walks out on them.
And I love the quiet, somberness of Linus reciting the Biblical Christmas story and telling his friend “That’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.”
It just is thirty minutes of holiday magic, even 55 years later.
10.) “Somewhere In My Memory” – Home Alone 1 and 2
So remember that stuff up top about my uncle’s glee club’s annual Christmas concerts? Two years ago, they featured a song that really hit me in the gut.
It’s the theme to Home Alone – “Somewhere In My Memory”. I’ve never actually heard the lyrics, but the music invokes a lot of holiday-related emotion in me; loss, reunion, love, perseverance.
I had forgotten about the song and hearing it again in my 30s reminded me of how much this holiday has changed for me since I was a kid. Gone are the big 20-person Christmas dinners, and Christmas Eves with my grandmother, who passed in 2013. Gone are the New Years Eve when she and her cousin and his wife would sit and drink until 4 a.m. while my mother quietly stewed that they wouldn’t leave. Gone were the living room dance parties, fake Santa visits and midnight present-opening.
The song recalls people we’ve lost, the traditions that have died out, the happy childhood memories that are now so far in the past. Some of it is sad to remember, but much of it brings a smile to my face. It’s also a reminder of how much of a cultural Christmas staple the Home Alone franchise was to my generation.
11.) Midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Traditions come and go, but new ones appear. One is watching Midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
I’m not a religious person, and I’ve always avoided going to Christmas mass because I like to stay home on December 24th and 25th. Starting about a decade ago, my mom and I would watch midnight mass broadcast from St. Patrick’s Cathedral on WPIX-11. In our pajamas by the fire, it felt like we were there in the congregation.
One year we were amazed by the soloist who work an exceptionally low-cut shirt. We people watch those in the pews to see if we can spot some famous folks – Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his former girlfriend Sandra Lee were among the congregants one year. We watch them place baby Jesus in the manger.
Midnight mass feels like the zenith of the two-day holiday. It feels like the moment the Christmas miracle happens. The joyous exhalation of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” is such a climatic moment. If you ever get the chance to watch, even if you’re not at all religious, you should, just to experience it.
12.) The One Thing I’m Missing This Year – Gatherings
“At least I’ll see them for Christmas”
That’s what I used to tell myself when I felt lonely after family gatherings as a kid. At times when I was most lonely, and I’ve spoken about this before, I’d think about my cousins or my aunts and uncles and have much fun it will be when we gather again. I always knew, at the very least, we’d get together for Christmas.
In 2020, my family has only gathered three times; once in January for my cousin’s college graduation – a celebration already delayed a month; in March right before the pandemic for my cousin’s birthday and for Labor Day for an outdoor barbecue. We won’t be gathering against at least until Memorial Day.
Back in the old days, we had two family Christmas gatherings – one the Sunday before for extended family and on Christmas Day with immediate family. It often felt like Christmas was a week long event. I always loved the drive home from my aunt’s house in Long Island, looking at Christmas lights along the way. Over the years, my extended family died or moved out of state and the gatherings trickled to a stop.
And its not just family gatherings that I’m missing. It’s the office holiday parties, one of the few times of the year I let myself get a little tipsy and splurge on a cab ride home; holiday parties with friends and Escape Rooms with my cousins. Winter can be a lonely, dark time and its always good to get in as much face time with others before the long, cold, lonely stretch of January, February and March.
It’s going to be rough this year. But next year, I promise, will be a holiday season none of us will ever forget.