NEW YORK — “I still believe in the magic of Christmas,” enthused Scarlett Johansson during her opening “Saturday Night Live” monologue on the storied NBC Studios stage at Rockefeller Center Dec. 14. Twenty-four hours later I found myself standing in front of the mythic Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and skating rink with my date, Mary Beth, and thousands of other tourists, with Johansson’s words and a loop of the greatest New York-Christmas song ever, the Pogues’ “Fairytale Of New York,” ringing in my head.
But magic? Seriously?
For me, the magic of Christmas had been temporarily in mothballs, with Ebenezer Trump, the impeachment hearings, world religion wars and an unrelenting December darkness combining to push me inward, embrace winter and hygge solitude, and hanker for some new faith in humanity. What a difference a few days in the city that never sleeps makes: We knew we weren’t in Minneapolis anymore upon arrival, when we found a couple of passed-out Santas from the previous night’s Santacon on the train leading into the city from the airport, and something about that sweet silly sight lifted my spirits and reminded me why people call this the best time of the year.
Straight away, Minnesota seemed to be following us, starting with the guy on the subway who I chatted up because he was reading one of my favorite Minnesota-born books, Charles Baxter’s “The Feast Of Love.” Then, walking through the West Village Sunday, we exchanged “Skols!’” with a woman in a Vikings jersey, who led us to Bar None, the unofficial Vikings headquarters in New York, which proved to be a madhouse of purple and gold expats and newbie NYC sufferers. “I’m from New Orleans originally. My mom told me years ago that life is hard and full of heartbreak so you should follow the Vikings,” she said, as the big tease Vikings finished off the Chargers on the big screens above.
Nevermind the Vikings, we wanted a New York Christmas and so we headed to Washington Square Park for the lighting of the giant Christmas tree. The white light and white heat was dazzling, but the truth is, like all the rando Santas, Christmas trees are all over New York — on tops of skyscrapers, apartment buildings, cranes; carried by pedestrians; strolled down the street in shopping carts; and sold on almost every corner. Hell if every single sighting didn’t make me grin like the post-epiphany Grinch.
Then it was on to Pete’s Tavern, the oldest bar in New York, which did not disappoint. Legend has it that “The Gift Of The Magi” was written at the bar by O. Henry, in 1905, and in tribute the pub is decked out in Christmas regalia year-round. After an egg nog and hot toddy, a perusal of the O. Henry collection that sits by the tip jar and a few spirited singalongs with our fellow revelers, we lingered by the sign hanging over the entryway proclaiming, “Oldest Original Bar in New York City Opened 1864,” and considered all the Minneapolis bars, clubs, and buildings that have been torn down. Humbug!
Next up was Cafe Wha?, the entrance to which greeted us with a poster from a 1990 Prince gig (inside, a cover band rocked hard and did perfect purple readings of “Kiss” and “Purple Rain”), and a New York Times clipping from 1961 that lionizes the place where Bob Dylan famously got his start:
“Just got here from the West,” the gangly 19-year-old told Manny Roth, owner of the Greenwich Village nightclub Cafe Wha? “Name’s Bob Dylan, I’d like to do a few songs? Can I?”
Sure, Mr. Roth said, on “hootenanny” nights, as he called them, anybody could sing a song or two and this was a hootenanny night, a bitterly cold one. Jan. 24, 1961. And so Mr. Dylan took out his guitar and sang a handful of Woody Guthrie songs. The crowd “flipped” in excitement, Mr. Dylan later said.
Around midnight, just around the corner from a woman selling measly branches under a sign “Charlie Brown Christmas trees for sale,” a Santa stood in front of Joe’s Pizza begging for change from the customers, one of whom was dressed in a full-body Pokeman Pikachu costume. I watched the Pikachu as he munched his slice on his way down the street and disappear into the subway, somehow perfectly, weirdly, also embodying the spirit of Christmas in New York.
So wonderful to be in a city that walks, a city designed for walkers, and thus the rest is a tinsely blur: the sugary smells and tastes of the Union Square Christmas village. The huge wreath hanging over Grand Central Station. The drag queen calling drag Christmas bingo at the Stonewall Inn. The “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd as the side of Saks on 5th Avenue lit up in all its HD Xmas glory. The iconic Christmas tree lit up on top of Radio City Music Hall. The best bookstore in the world, The Strand, bustling with holiday shoppers and breath-taking books, and a “New York writers” section that came with this Tom Wolfe quote, which spoke to me as I pored through the stacks: “One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.”
But it will be Rockefeller Center I’ll remember most. Not even necessarily for the tree or skating rink, but for the countless faces of joy I witnessed, taking in the lights, taking selfies and snapshots, all to commemorate this singular joyful moment. So much happiness, so apart from these dire times. I could’ve people-watched all day, but then it was a short walk to stand under the New Year’s Eve ball in Times Square, and when Bing Crosby’s faraway voice boomed out over the throng, “Silver bells, silver bells, it’s Christmas time in the city,” there was seriously only one word for it.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].