Travel: Bright lights, big tree

Whether you're a dedicated Scrooge or a turkey fanatic, New York is the ideal festive-season destination, says Michael Leapman
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The Independent Culture
Feel A touch of the Scrooges coming on? Then plan to spend Christmas in New York city. If you cannot enjoy the festive season there, the chances are that, like the surly old miser before his visitations, you are constitutionally incapable of enjoying it anywhere. That is true no matter what particular meaning the holiday has for you.

A festival of shopping and spectacle? No city in the world is better equipped to satisfy those Yuletide enthusiasms. A feast of gluttony? There is a dazzling choice of eating places of every conceivable style - remember that the traditional British turkey originated in north America, and so did cranberry sauce; although if you ask for crackers you will get savoury biscuits.

For those who see Christmas primarily as a religious festival, it is worth knowing that New York boasts 6,000 places of worship. Despite its cosmopolitan nature, 72 per cent of its residents are Christian and most of the others find ways to share in the festivities: the Christmas Day walking tour of the former Jewish quarter on the Lower East Side is one of the more novel ways of spending the day.

A proper Christmas needs snow, bright skies and temperatures hovering around freezing, to give you the chance of wearing colourful muffs and woolly hats and of seeing your breath in front of your face. The chances of getting that Christmas-card weather are better in New York than in most of Britain. Even when the climate does not co-operate, you will still be able to bring colour to your cheeks by joining in (or just watching) the seasonal outdoor ice skating beneath the giant Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center; or at the Wollman rink in Central Park, against the unique backdrop of the midtown skyscrapers.

New Yorkers tackle Christmas, as they do most aspects of their lives, with uncompromising verve. It has a defined span, beginning next Thursday on Thanksgiving Day, when Father Christmas leads a parade of floats down Broadway from Central Park to Macy's department store. Once there, the bearded benefactor stays in the toy department for the duration, and hundreds of his clones scatter to all parts of the city, both in stores and on street corners, where they ring bells and collect money for charity.

There are three ways of planning a seasonal visit to New York. All through December you can enjoy the sensation of growing anticipation, join the natives in shopping till you drop and look at the world's best animated window displays. You can plan to be there for the holiday itself, when many hotels offer seasonal packages, or you can go for New Year to watch the traditional merriment in Times Square, catch the sales and still admire the decorations, which stay in place until the end of the first week in January. (An advantage of that last option is that flight and hotel prices fall dramatically after Christmas.)

The switching-on ceremonies for tree lights and other illuminations are crowded into the first week of December. The most glorious is at Rockefeller Center, where figures of trumpeting angels form a triumphal approach to the ice rink and lighted tree. There is another big tree at the Lincoln Center, a giant snowflake at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street and, downtown, a marvellous panoply of lights at the World Financial Center, alongside the World Trade Center.

In Central Park, the trees around the Tavern on the Green have their branches bedecked with thousands of fairy lights. Among skyscrapers with Christmas floodlighting is the Empire State Building, its spire picked out in seasonal red and green. The stone lions outside the New York Public Library wear wreaths of holly with shining stars.

One of New Yorkers' favourite trees graces the medieval sculpture hall in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The 20ft blue spruce is decorated with angels and cherubs made in Naples in the 18th century and beneath it is a Neapolitan Baroque Nativity tableau. Children enjoy the lighting ceremony that takes place at 7pm every Friday and Saturday until 4 January.

The Cloisters, the Met's medieval sculpture museum at the northern end of Manhattan, is decorated with traditional wreaths and garlands and medieval Nativity groups. One of the cloisters is planted as a winter garden, echoing to recorded Renaissance Christmas music. At the other end of Manhattan, South Street Seaport has a "singing Christmas tree", the focus of daily choral concerts.

At the New York Botanical Garden, up in the Bronx, there are three features aimed at children. The Tree Garden has trees decorated with ecologically correct natural and recycled ornaments. Model train puppets perform The Little Engine That Could, and Thomas the Tank Engine makes a personal appearance in the last two weeks of December.

Many parents are deterred from taking children to New York by its reputation as a mecca of adult pleasures. In fact it caters to the young better than most other cities, especially at this time of year. The Big Apple circus installs itself in a marquee outside the Lincoln Center, while in the Center's permanent theatres the Metropolitan Opera does Hansel and Gretel and the New York City Ballet performs The Nutcracker.

If that seems a bit highbrow for the holidays, Tony Randall stars in a musical version of A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Gardens. And there is the traditional Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall featuring the Rockettes, the world's leggiest chorus line, dressed in skimpy Santa outfits.

Taking children to FAO Schwarz, the multi-storey toy shop on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 58th Street, could damage your wallet irretrievably. But even if you cannot afford the four-figure prices of exotic dolls'- houses and train sets, there is no charge for looking - and there are lots of lower-priced toys for sale.

From there, walk south down Fifth Avenue to see the best of the window displays, many with animated models. Saks always has something original and so do the two celebrated jewellers, Cartier and Tiffany. For actually buying jewellery you might do better to turn right on to 47th Street, the city's diamond district, where you can bargain for the piece you want, as well as watch the Hasidic Jewish dealers doing business on the pavement. Maybe not very Christmassy, but very New York.

If you make that diversion, be sure to return to Fifth Avenue and walk 10 blocks south to Lord & Taylor, whose window displays are so intriguing that a queueing system is installed on the street to let people file past them in order, as if they were looking at the Crown Jewels in the Tower. This is one of the biggest shops in the city for women's and men's clothes - generally cheaper in New York than in Britain. For real bargains, though, go to Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, where designer-name goods can be had at steep discounts.

Try to tear yourself away from shopping to visit some of the world's finest museums. This year's big winter show at the Met features the work of the French landscape artist Corot, and for the homesick the museum has two exhibits with a British angle: portrait miniatures from the Queen's collection and the furniture designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

New York is a centre of the fashion industry and two current exhibitions reflect this: the work of Christian Dior at the Met's Costume Institute and a show of the festive party wear of the designer Arnold Scaasi (couturier to Barbara Bush among others) in the unlikely venue of the New York Historical Society.

The Museum of Television and Radio has two displays that will appeal to the young, featuring the "Peanuts" cartoon films and the television appearances of Elvis Presley.

New York always packs a surprise. Until quite recently, the idea of taking children to the stretch of 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, just west of Times Square, would have been unthinkable. Ever since I first knew the city nearly 30 years ago, this has been its sleaziest block. Repeated ambitious schemes to clean it up have come and gone without making any impact.

Now, its improbable transformation to a children's entertainment centre is well under way. The block is lined with turn-of-the-century theatres, which later became cinemas and then emporia of porn. They are being restored, and one is already operating as a theatre for young people, opposite the Disney organisation has opened a theme store. True, the peep shows and sex shops have not moved far - just round the corner on to Eighth Avenue - but the area will certainly improve greatly when the restoration is complete.

Manhattan's churches resonate in the festive season not just with religious services but with concerts of fine music. The pretty St Bartholomew's - on Park Avenue not far from St Patrick's Cathedral - has a reputation for its choir, and there are recitals at Trinity Church, looking east down Wall Street: God's outpost on Mammon's territory.

It is worth making the effort to go uptown and visit the Cathedral of St John the Divine, on Amsterdam Avenue at 110th Street, the venue for many Christmas concerts. The setting is extraordinarily evocative, partly because the vast cathedral is still unfinished after more than 100 years: the style was switched from Gothic to Renaissance in mid-build. Further north, in Harlem, churches feature energetic gospel singing. The easiest way to attend one is to take a gospel tour organised by Harlem Spirituals.

New Year's Eve festivities begin with a firework display at the re-stored South Street Seaport, then move uptown to culminate at Times Square, where, amid raucous revelry, an illuminated ball drops from the top of the skyscraper that used to house the New York Times. After watching it, you can have the satisfaction of going native by turning to your neighbours and saying: "Have a nice year." Whatever they reply, it will not be "Bah! Humbug!"

! For details on the Christmas Day walking tour of the Lower East Side ring 00 1 212 439 1090; or to contact the Harlem Spirituals ring 00 1 212 757 0425 for information on gospel tours.

! Michael Leapman travelled to New York courtesy of United Vacations, which offers inclusive short breaks in New York for two nights and longer. Until 14 December, prices for a two-night stay begin at pounds 337, but from then until Christmas Day they are go up to pounds 557, dropping to pounds 340 between Christmas and New Year and pounds 329 from 1 January to 20 March. For details and availability phone 0181 313 0999.