John Updike's Christmas in New York

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The Independent Culture
CHRISTMAS IN New York City is a brave and somewhat bizarre affair. Like almost everything in America but the landscape and the Native Americans, the holiday was imported. The New England Puritans and the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam had little use for it, as a pagan and then papist intrusion in the Christian calendar. But in 1823 Clement Clark Moore, a New York clergyman and professor at the Episcopal General Theological Seminary, published a poem, A Visit from St Nicholas, which created the American Christmas. Known to every schoolchild, the poem begins with the famous couplet:

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all

through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a

mouse...

And goes on to evoke a St Nicholas totally removed from the austerities of medieval sainthood:

He had a broad face and a little round belly

That shook, when he laughed, like a bowl

full of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old

elf,

And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of

myself...

This fat, laughable Santa Claus is the patron saint of the Christmas spree which merchants and even grave-faced economists encourage - a frenzy of buying meant to reach its highest pitch in Manhattan, the nation's grandest souk. The Knickerbocker New York of Clement Moore's time, amiably confused with the snow-bedecked London of Dickens' Christmas Carol, is a religiously neutral evoker of the season's magic; the inspector of Christmas windows will find many a top hat and hoop-skirt bedecking mannequins whose faces are alight, beneath a tall, haloed gas lamp, with the joys of carolling or of being drawn through Central Park in a one-horse sleigh.

But contemporary New York is raucously multi-ethnic and post-Christian, a site for the worship of Mammon and Dionysus rather than of the baby Jesus. Specifically Christian notes, in fact, are rare in the city's seasonal decorations. Long gone are the days when the Jewish owners of the emporiums like Bloomingdale's and Stern's made creches, with tenderly smitten shepherds and resplendent, gift-bearing Magi, the centrepiece of their display windows.

The windows of Bergdorf Goodman in 1995, for instance, contained enigmatic scenes of set tables and similar posh decor, all coated with an artificial frost whose sparkle and whiteness presumably signified Christmas in the current minimalist code. Those of Saks were devoted to "The Little Snowman of Rockefeller Centre", with a series of windows occupied by nodding reindeer and slowly twirling snowmen. Symbolised by Santa Claus, evergreens, angels and baubles, Christmas belongs to everyone.

In his novel Operation Shylock, Philip Roth salutes Irving Berlin for having secularised the two major Christian holidays with a pair of popular songs, "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade", that leave Christ quite out of it. Christmas in New York offers foreign tourists an excellent study in the accommodations of the American melting-pot.

One out of four New Yorkers is Jewish; Jewish energy and intelligence and warmth set the city's tone, or, rather, have conformed to and strengthened a tone that was always there, a tone of mercantile brashness that was haughtily noted by Bostonians and Philadelphians while the colonies were still ruled by a king across the ocean. The eight days of Hanukkah have been blended with Christmas into the "holiday season", and the Hanukkah menorah and the Nordic pine tree have merged with the camels carrying the Magi across the Sinai Peninsula and Tiny Tim and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer - a welter of acceptable Christmas imagery available to window- dressers as elements of the message intended to excite holiday spending.

New York is also home to one of the world's greatest concentrations of people of sub-Saharan African blood; and black-faced Santa Clauses, in white beards and moustaches, can be seen on many a street corner. How many of these are, behind their beards, Black Muslims does not bear looking into. In an age of weakening Christian orthodoxy, the vigorous dogmas of political correctness and ethnic diversity are enforced everywhere. Of two 10ft wooden soldiers standing guard on the south side of Rockefeller Centre in 1995, one was female and one was black. Snowmen, once a common symbol of the season, have become, in their ineluctable whiteness, something of an embarrassment. Deep in the maze of tunnels beneath Times Square, a trio of black men in Santa Claus outfits were playing Christmas carols, in jubilant Caribbean rhythms, on steel drums.

The centre of New York's Christmas observance bears, on maps, the rather recessive name of Sunken Plaza. It is a rectangular area in front of the RCA Building in Rockefeller Centre, where ice-skaters go round and round beneath the great golden figure of a horizontally floating Prometheus. At Prometheus's back, above his elegantly marcelled art deco head, there is erected each year the gigantic Christmas tree whose lighting, in early December, marks the beginning of the holidays in the metropolis.

This year the tree, a 75ft Norway spruce, came from the grounds of a nunnery in New Jersey, the Sisters of Christian Unity, many of whom attended the ceremony, along with the mayor and thousands of citizens and tourists seeking to be infected by the Christmas spirit. The nuns referred to their departed tree in the feminine gender, as when one nun said: "I haven't seen her since she was cut."

You approach the skating-rink by walking down the Promenade, a sloping pedestrian way decorated with angels fashioned of white wicker. A security guard, with his own beatific smile, stood ready to defend the angels from any who might think them worth stealing. A half-block to the west, in the Radio City Music Hall, the Rockettes danced in their famous line of high-kicking bare legs, in a heavily patronised Christmas show also featuring animals, both real and simulated. A half-block to the east, across Fifth Avenue, St Patrick's cathedral, one of the few city churches that still manage to hold their own with the surrounding architecture, opened its bronze portals to those seeking a more intimate, specifically religious "take" on the season.

Small white "champagne" lights are ubiquitous, like clouds of gnats in a damp pine wood in the heat of summer. The little streaks and splashes of them, and the plastic evergreens that ornament the window of many a haberdashery and boutique, seem, under the towering stone mass of midtown, a bit perfunctory. This year, one store along the Promenade, BREE, displayed an arrangement of crossed sticks and an entwining, sinuous wreath curiously sugg- esting both a dollar sign and a crucifixion.

Along Rockefeller Plaza, the little half-street that connects 48th and 51st Streets to the west of Fifth Avenue, a racy shop called Sylvie Bluelips resorted, for the seasonal supernatural note, to mannequins of a comic extraterrestriality: one had an eyeball for a belly-button and wore great triangular earrings spelling the word "sexy". "Have a sexy Xmas" is not quite yet an official greeting.

This central territory of Christmas is also heavy media country: the Associated Press and Time Warner have their fortresses in the shadow of the RCA Building, and at its base, tourists cluster to gaze and grimace into the windows at the Today Show, the NBC network's gifts to breakfasting America. Christmas, in a world ever more shaped by the images that television beams forth, seems a giant commercial, thrust upon us helpless viewers as inflexibly, as mercilessly, as all those other commercials that deaden the mind of a hucksterised society.

It is in the little byways of Manhattan that a certain poignance and intimacy still attach to the holiday. The wreath in the steamy restaurant window, the luxuriously bearded Santa cut-outs softening the grim lines of a police station, the cold and lonely treks of the tree-deliverer and the nativity players.

In the hearts of the city's millions, Christmas struggles to keep a personal meaning. In the great Main Post Office on Eighth Avenue, adults take time to peruse and answer sheafs of letters written to Santa Claus by New York children; where they once used to ask for toys, they now ask Santa simply for clothes. A grim world of deprivation lurks beneath the glitzy surface of Christmas in New York; and the contrast is not exactly concealed, in this city of street people housed on the sidewalks in cardboard boxes and plastic garbage bags. The tireless, inescapable begging ("Change, spare change?" comes the muttered litany) is seasonally reinforced by the monotonous ringing of the Salvation Army volunteers. These institutional beggars, incidentally, once as common a Christmas sight as red suits and false beards, have been banned from many of the country's shopping malls, as unsightly intrusions on the malls' private property. New York is one of the few cities left where the downtown still functions as a shopping centre. In midtown Manhattan, beggars, police, shoppers, tourists, and jostling teenagers from Harlem and the boroughs mingle in an open- air carnival shot through with the smell of chestnuts heating over charcoal grills and the sound of carols leaking from swinging doors.

As a child I more than once travelled, with a family member, to see Christmas in New York, where the displays of the department stores lifted into a realm of more exalted enchantment the nodding dolls and the circling electric trains of the store windows in my home city in Pennsylvania. I still try to visit New York in December, and to admire once more the baroque opulence of the huge artificial Christmas tree erected in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with its magnificent carved creche and firmament of angels, from 18th-century Naples.

The month is generally a raw time of year in Manhattan, as the calendar's shortest days press on the brave display of consumerism. The tinsel shivers in the wind off the rivers that surround this narrow, rocky island. In a city so fathomlessly layered, Christmas does not penetrate very conspicuously into the subways, or transfigure the tall, granite-faced buildings much above the ground floor. Yet I have never been disappointed in my visits; something of Christmas unobtainable elsewhere exists here. The holiday hustle suits a hustling town; it raises the ante and ups the tempo. The fantastically abundant lights of the island become Christmas illuminations - Manhattan a single glittering bauble, a brave extravagance.

Extracted from `More Matter: essays and criticism' by John Updike, published by Hamish Hamilton at pounds 25

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