Saturday, December 12, 2015

Christmas in New York: Then and Now

When I was a boy growing up in the Northwest Bronx’s neighborhood of Kingsbridge, Christmas was—from my youthfully innocent perspective—the “most wonderful time of the year.” Andy Williams really nailed it, although I don’t ever remember any “scary ghost stories” being bandied about during my family's yuletide celebrations. The weeks preceding December 25th had an anticipatory feel that, I know, can never be felt again. Decades removed from that wide-eyed kid—who loved virtually everything about the holiday season—this time of year just isn’t so wonderful anymore.

The passage of time has done a number on that special feeling—one that, in simpler times, I believed was inviolable. Really, I couldn’t conceive back in the 1970s not being excited at the prospect of an impending Christmas. The first signs of the season—store decorations, typically—were enough to light that spark. Christmas-themed television commercials were next. Raised a Catholic, there was the first Sunday of Advent, the second, the third, and then the fourth—crunch time. Three purple candles and a pink one defined the Advent wreath, which we—and countless others—had in our homes. It wasn’t a hanging kind of wreath, by the way, but one that rested on a table, television set, or countertop. The solitary pink candle was lit on the third Sunday for a reason that now escapes me.

I don’t exactly know why. but I vividly recall an Advent wreath in the classroom of my fifth grade teacher, Sister Lyse—a very nice woman and personal favorite of mine—having its four candles melt into an orb-like mélange of purple and pink. This candle carnage occurred because they were too close for comfort with one of St. John’s grammar school’s uber-hot radiators. The meltdown was discovered on the morning our class was preparing to venture down to Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan via the subway— the Number 1 train to be precise, which was only a block away, and whose elevated tracks we could see from our school’s east-facing windows. Watching both a movie and a Christmas show there—Rockettes and all—was a heady experience and more of what made Christmas such an amazingly layered experience. I was of a tender age in a more tender time, and it didn’t bother me in the least that the New York City subways back then were crime-ridden and smothered in graffiti.

When my father purchased a new record player and stereo from Macy’s at Herald Square, my brothers and sisters gleefully awaited its delivery. Upon its arrival, we naturally posed for pictures around it. We piled LPs on the thing, which automatically dropped upon a record’s end, for years and years after. We had a few “Christmas in New York” albums in the family collection, and there really wasn’t anything like—once upon a time—Christmas in New York. I’d like to think there are still kids feeling the way I felt about Christmas in an age before computers, iPhones, and cable television. But getting past all of that, I know, isn't easy.

(Photo 1 from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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