Before you write me off as a total grouch, you should know that I wasn’t always this way. There’s photographic evidence to prove it. The little orange date stamp in the corner says it’s 1992 and I’m sitting with my little sister on our living room rug, decorating the tree. Our Santa hats are way too big for our dopey little heads. Grins all around. We’re adorable and we know it. Christmas rules.
Cut to today: While my roommates trim our apartment-sized tree in Queens, I watch “Schindler’s List” in my room. While they tape tinsel to our walls, I read a Wikipedia article about lead poisoning. While they drink cocoa, I drink cocoa. It turns out cocoa is a delicious and not-exclusively-Christmasy drink.
But what sets me apart from other grumps is that I’m not ready to totally write off the holidays just yet. This is my first Christmas in New York; it’s time to turn some things around. I’m ready to have my mind changed. So I decided that I’d visit some of New York’s holiday hotspots to see if I could recapture those tidings of comfort and/or joy. SPOILER ALERT: I made it to three. Well, two-and-a-half.
First stop on Operation Enduring Yule Log: the Rockefeller Center tree lighting ceremony. What better way to kick off the holiday season than with 10,000 strangers and a 74-foot-tall Norway Spruce? (Possible answer: With 10,000 Spruces and a 74-foot-tall Norwegian stranger. Vikings, if you’re reading this, get in touch.) Well, here’s what you might not realize about the ceremony from watching it on TV. The actual tree-adjacent plaza of Rockefeller Center isn’t that big. Not nearly big enough for, say, 10,000 strangers. Where did the extra viewers go? They (we) got to watch the festivities on a large screen in a nearby alley. That’s right: they shepherded us into an alley, like so many touristy sheep. Everything you saw at home, we saw in our alley, unless you saw bathrooms. WE SAW NO BATHROOMS. As the old saying goes, “When you see no bathrooms, everything becomes a bathroom.” I’m pretty sure that’s a saying.
The show itself was a who’s who of musical stars, from Justin Bieber to Tony Bennett, whose face is starting to resemble a very smiley handbag. And I wanted to enjoy the ceremony. I really did. But after standing for five hours, seeing the tree light up on a Jumbotron didn’t quite pack the punch I was hoping for.
Relatively unfazed and still open to holiday redemption (and finding a public restroom), I headed to Radio City Music Hall to see the world-famous Rockettes and their Christmas Spectacular. Nothing says yuletide cheer like 72 synchronized legs, dancing and prancing and…(This paragraph was not finished because the box office told me that tickets are $110, which is well outside my price range. For those interested, my price range is anywhere between “free” and “mostly free.”) So I just hung out on the sidewalk for a while. I think I saw one of the dancers, but it might’ve just been a lady. I smiled at her, but she kept walking. I was grinchier than ever.
Enough was enough. No more messing around. It was time to take my problems to the big man himself: Macy’s Santa Claus. If you’ve never been to Santaland at the Herald Square Macy’s, just imagine a haunted house. Now replace all the animatronic ghosts with robotic penguins. Swap the disgruntled actors dressed as ghouls for blissed-out actors in elf costumes. Throw in a few sobbing babies and a couple stressed-out parents and you’ve got a fairly accurate picture of Santaland.
I’ve never had a panic attack before, but waiting in line to meet Santa, I got a pretty good idea of how it’d go. Somewhere between the huge model train set and the dancing teddy bears, I realized I was the only one in the room without a kid. Suddenly I felt everyone’s eyes on me and I started to sweat. Would the elves make fun of me in their break room? Would Santa make me sit on his lap? How much was a photo going to cost? I was having a hard time breathing and I came very close to running out of the store. But then a friendly, acne-ridden elf named Eggnog led me into Santa’s room and everything changed.
I don’t know how else to say it, other than this guy was the real deal. This was Santa. Real beard, rosy cheeks, twinkly eyes. He nailed it. We talked about the kids he’d seen and what presents they were hoping for and he made me laugh and I totally forgot about how self-conscious I was for being there alone. All I could think about was: it’s nice that someone is listening to children. It’s nice that someone’s giving out smiles and hugs unconditionally. That’s a great character to have in our national mythology. Honestly, when I started my Christmas-spirit-recovery marathon, I didn’t have very high hopes. Snark runs deep and pessimism doesn’t let up easily, but when I walked out of that little room, my heart really felt three sizes larger.
Until I saw a second Santa in a second little room, listening to the wishes of another kid. That’s right: Macy’s hired two Santas to keep the line moving and didn’t even do a very good job covering it up. Dang.
Santa Number One, if you’re reading this, get in touch. I think you’re doing good work. To everyone else: bah humbug.