Tag Archives: Christmas

Castanet Sleigh Ride

When it snows out, I play John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” a tradition that dates back to 21 years ago today when I returned to my apartment on Bleecker Street, got caught in a blizzard, and watched the city go silent. I owned two CDs back then: John Coltrane and The Black Crowes, and snow in Manhattan felt more Coltrane than Chris Robinson, plus “My Favorite Things” is a 17-minute song, so that’s ample time to sit by a large window and watch the snow fall. More than 20 inches fell on New York City between January 6-8, 1996, still among the best two-plus days I’ve ever enjoyed in Manhattan. I ordered Indian takeout. Outside, I walked Greenwich Village and watched people cross-country ski down Bleecker Street, as if they had been waiting for this moment for years. No one honked their horns because the cars were stuck. People threw snowballs and waved at each other. It was the most laid-back side of New York City I had ever seen.

I am playing Coltrane now, though we woke up to barely an inch of snow. As someone who grew up in the Snow Belt, this is quite unimpressive January weather (so far). During my childhood, winter wasn’t so much a season but a state of mind, one that involved time, preparation and equipment: the extra five or ten minutes to get into a snowsuit and boots; how I had spent all fall stacking wood for our wood-burning stove; the purchasing of rock salt; making sure the shovels could take another round; ensuring the snow-blower still worked; that we hadn’t outgrown our boots yet; that we had cans of Campbells soup somewhere in the cupboard in case we got snowed in and the grocery store was closed, because at the time there was only one store in town (and yes, it was Campbells—I can’t even look at the Warhol version without thinking of how salty that soup is). Snow piled up in feet, not inches. There was a hunker-down mentality to my childhood winters that I’ve always resented, and I’ve spent years distancing myself from them, despite the fun I had sledding down huge hills.

Last Friday, I was in Ybor City in Tampa, Florida, where it was around 65 degrees, and folks were bundled like the “Big One” was coming. Heavy scarves, long sweaters, hats, boots, coats. I get that Floridians, and Southerners in general, don’t do snow. They hunker down for hurricanes, a shared, but different mentality altogether. One of our waiters, who was originally from Georgia, joked with us how he keeps meaning to drive north to see snow, but when it gets to be around 60 degrees, he chickens out. I thought about this notion—driving a long distance to see snow, and here I was having just driven 1,300 miles to warm up on a beach. A friend of mine who lives in Phoenix drives her kids 170 miles north to Flagstaff to take them sledding. When I was a kid, I was always jealous of my classmates who could afford to go to Florida for school breaks (and it was *always* Florida). Intense sunshine, powdery beaches and palm trees were as curious and exotic to me as snow was to this guy.

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So here I was, living out my Florida fantasies over the holiday break—doing exactly what I had always wanted to do as a kid. Originally, I had wanted to stay on Sanibel Island, but the rates were too high and the restrictions too many, so instead I lucked out with this awesome house attached to a private pool in Cape Coral, only a half-hour drive from Sanibel. I loved the Cape Coral neighborhood because it wasn’t travel brochure-Florida—it was Florida-Florida: manatee-shaped mailboxes, plastic flamingos everywhere, dolphins etched into glass doorways, very tanned, white-haired people walking dogs. Florida was my happy lamp last week, so I spent mornings walking around the neighborhood, and once, a young guy heading towards a pickup truck greeted me hello while holding a rifle in each hand. Yep. I had the real deal.

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Sanibel Island didn’t disappoint either. We went to the beach a number of times last week, including a beautiful stroll on Christmas Day. This was my first “warm” Christmas, and I reveled in Florida’s quirky mix of inflated polar bears and palm trees, its plastic candy canes jutting out of sand. We saw egrets trying to wait out the fishermen, and we saw dolphins swim past every time we went to the beach. Sanibel is known for its seashells, and there’s a posted guide displaying different shells and their names, which reminded me of being in the cosmetics aisle reading lipsticks thinking: “Which is more me, Red Hot Lover or Pretty In Pink?” I found an Atlantic Kitten Paw and a Florida Spiky Jewel Box. I only took a few shells home as souvenirs; I saw people carrying buckets of shells on the beach, and the roads in our Cape Coral neighborhood were a mix of asphalt and crushed shell, so perhaps seashells aren’t a limited resource—I don’t know. But I didn’t want to be greedy. I “shelled” because “shelling” on Sanibel is a very active verb, and I walked the edge of the Gulf of Mexico admiring the variety of shells. The waves off Sanibel weren’t ideal for boogie-boarding, so Mike dragged our kid across the water the way he used to pull her on her sled across snow.

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Throughout the week, the Sunshine State lived up to its name; it was in the 80s, abundantly bright out and warm enough to use our private pool almost all hours of the day. Except for last Friday, the day we went to Ybor City because I wanted to take my half-Spaniard husband to Columbia Restaurant, a Florida institution I had visited the previous year. This time, Columbia felt far more touristy than I had remembered. Maybe this was because of the holidays? We had reservations for dinner and flamenco dancing. At the table next to us, an older gentleman loudly asked his companion if it was “Flamingo or Flah-min-coh” dancing, and the companion had to correct him: “It’s ‘flah-mehn-co, not flamingo like the bird.” I kid you not—that was said out loud—very out loud—at the table next to me, and I was amused and slightly nervous because I knew then we were in for something marketed to tourists. Sure enough, the lights dim, the dancers come out dressed in bright gowns and wearing bright silk flowers in their hair, and they start dancing to “Sleigh Ride” blasted from an aging soundtrack system, keeping the rhythm of “Sleigh Ride” with their castanets. I burst out laughing, and then did all I could to maintain composure during the performance. My husband, whose father was born in Madrid and apparently didn’t speak any English, look horrified, which made me laugh even harder. We honeymooned in Spain, and had seen gorgeous flamenco dancing when we lived in Washington, D.C., and a troupe from Spain passed through. I had also recently seen beautiful flamenco dancing while in Havana in May. None of these past experiences involved a soundtrack. Flamenco dancing is a few women in dresses that crest and fall like ocean waves, castanets strapped to dancers’ fingers, and usually one guy dancing with them, another guy playing a box or a chair or some makeshift drum, and always—always a dude furiously strumming a guitar like it’s his last day.

Our daughter, who had never seen live flamenco dancing, looked confused and kept asking why I was trying to stifle my laughter. Repeating “Mom, what’s so funny??” while dancers are on stage trying to do their job is as awkward as it sounds. I had brought my family to a tourist trap. Playing castanets to a Muzak version of “Sleigh Ride” was meant for guys in the audience who can’t pronounce “flamenco.” The dancers were quite good, and the whole thing would’ve been better if they shut off the cheesy soundtrack, which, they eventually did. A skinny guy in a red shirt and tight black pants came on stage and saved the day with his singing and dancing, and my husband’s posture softened. A few minutes of something authentic-ish.

Honestly, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It just added to the weirdness that is Florida. And, it humbled me. I can take my family down Seventh Avenue in Ybor City, past its bars, the hookah lounges, the tattoo parlors, I can buy a cloche hat from La France, crave a Cubano sandwich I can’t eat because it’s not gluten-free, and convince myself I’m having a cool, authentic experience only to spend that same evening sitting before a stage of flamenco dancers working their assess off to “Sleigh Ride.” It was the perfect Friday night in Florida. You should try it sometime.

Christmas in New Netherland

On Sunday, I had brunch with a friend at a lovely French restaurant on the Upper East Side, where, to both our surprise, a simple bowl of berries cost $14. Just some chopped strawberries, blueberries and raspberries in a bowl. No fancy sauces or drizzled purees. I don’t even think the berries were organic—for all I know, they could have been doused in DDT before being spooned into a pretty white bowl. We ordered them without asking about the price first (we didn’t have menus at the time), assuming “How expensive can berries be?” and were shell-shocked when the tab arrived.

This isn’t how most of America dines on a Sunday morning. As someone who has crossed socioeconomic classes, I am acutely aware of this. After my fancy eggs with fruit and a Bellini, I read this, which is heartbreaking. Thirty-five dollars prices people out of therapy. And I’m sitting on Lexington Avenue eating overpriced berries.

I live in New Netherland, which this article encapsulates perfectly. After nearly 13 years here, I still haven’t grown used to the affluenza. New Netherland, as journalist Colin Woodard explains it, is “materialistic, with a profound tolerance for ethnic and religious diversity and an unflinching commitment to the freedom of inquiry and conscience.”

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This feels very true. I can tell you that it really doesn’t matter what your skin color or sexual orientation is here in New Netherland, but holy crap, if you grocery shop at Wal-mart, if you earned your degree from a state school, if you think Olive Garden is Italian dining, if you don’t have an advanced degree or multiple advanced degrees, which are very common, if you’re not in a certain income bracket, then you are the gum on someone’s shoe. A decade ago, my own boss told me that “state school was the equivalent of going to community college.” Our daughter has attended bat mitzvahs that I am quite sure cost more than my wedding. She also rolled her eyes at the kid around the corner from us, telling me “he has a thousand pairs of sneakers.” This kid’s house is worth $1.2 million, and stands maybe 300 steps from ours. Our modest abode is worth half that, looks like a beat-up shoebox, and inside our beat-up shoebox, our daughter keeps two pairs of sneakers, one for basketball and an aging pair of Converse that will likely get donated soon. I can go out and buy a new, fully-outfitted Audi (actually, I can’t afford to, but if I did…), and no one in my neighborhood would think anything of it. At school drop off this morning, I was behind a Mercedes Benz that had a vanity plate advertising that the driver was a dentist. I wouldn’t be surprised if people eye our 2010 CRV and wonder why I haven’t upgraded yet. Regarding upgrades, a neighbor told me about her daughter’s book club where the mothers circled about and compared anniversary wedding band upgrades. I have seen diamond rings here that could blind a pilot.

Oh, and no one here is priced out of therapy. I’ve met folks who actually maintain two therapists because they like to hash out different issues with different shrinks. The psychiatrist down the road from me charges $345 for what’s usually less than an hour.

You get the idea.

Which is why at Christmas, one of my favorite activities besides watching my daughter art-direct Christmas tree decorating is buying gifts for Winter Wishes, a program of New York Cares. I’ve been answering Winter Wishes letters for a decade, and almost all of them have come from the Bronx, one of the poorest regions in America. I read the letters aloud to my daughter, who, somehow, isn’t growing up entitled despite the affluenza swirling about her, and maybe that’s because I make a point to read these letters to her, let her hear others’ perspectives during the holidays. It’s so easy to forget what we have.

I don’t fault New York City for being wired the way it is. It was a colonists’ gold mine from the start, surrounded by water, an ideal commercial hub between the Old World and the New. Making money, keeping money, and spending money have been the way of things here since the Half Moon accidentally glided up the Hudson, and started scouting the possibilities. Henry Hudson didn’t find the Pacific Ocean, as he had hoped, but OMG, the shopping opportunities among all that “virgin” land! The Dutch, with their long history of trade, picked up Hudson’s trail. Fast-forward four centuries, and a massive Westfield World Trade Center, which opened in August, stands where the Twin Towers fell; commerce carries us forward.

I avoid malls. Year-round. And, being a freelance writer who makes very little money, I try to keep my commerce to a minimum, though I did just order tacos on #TacoTuesday, so I do contribute to the economy when and where I can, but not on the grand scale that New Netherland needs to stay afloat. Holiday shopping in New Netherland is a competitive sport, and I am not cut out for it. However, New York City is *gorgeous* in December, and you can minimize the overwhelming commercialism by doing two things: (1) don’t look at the price tags on Christmas trees here; you’ll faint, and (2) just walk around and enjoy the lights. They’re everywhere. Look up. It doesn’t cost anything to admire the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. And there’s an Olive Garden in Times Square (also more lights), if you’re in the mood for Italian. I won’t judge.

Christmas Somewhere Else

I’m not very traditional and have the honor of being the change agent in our household, which means I’m usually the one saying “Why don’t we try this?” or “We’ve never done that before…” or “Let’s see what this is about!” Sometimes it’s met with tepid enthusiasm. Other times it’s met with cautious silence. This happened in 2007 when I suggested to my husband we spend Christmas in Brugges because Brugges looked like a gingerbread house village where Eurocentric Christmas traditions took root. Mike agreed, understandably wondering what spending a holiday so deeply intertwined with his childhood would look like in a foreign place. Turned out, he loved it. Christmas in Belgium was filled with charcuterie, world-class beer, everything dipped in chocolate, twinkling lights and ice skating.

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We liked it so much we flew to London the following Christmas and spent a week there, again eating too much meat, cheese and chocolate, ice skating, hiding from the cold rain in awesome museums and—my favorite—the Prêt-à-Portea at the Berkeley Hotel with its chocolate-colored walls and gold ornaments.

A few years went by and then in 2013, I got it in my head that we should spend Christmas in Taos, New Mexico, and partake in the Christmas Eve bonfires at Taos Pueblo. This experience is unmatched. There’s still time, so if you’re anywhere near Taos on the night of December 24th, whatever your religious or cultural affiliations, go and see. Taos Pueblo is the only inhabited World Heritage Site in North America and during Christmas Eve, Santa Claus is nowhere to be found, which is refreshing. We attended mass at St. Jerome’s where we actually got there early enough to grab a spot on a pew. After the service, we followed the procession out into the hundreds of luminarias and three large bonfires taller than some houses. And then the procession proceeded without us because we got swept up in the crowds. That’s okay because we still felt like we were part of something quite old and very large. Christmas Eve at Taos Pueblo is about light, a message to the sky. No Santa. No Elf on a Shelf. No glowing reindeer. “Magical” sounds trite and doesn’t even begin to describe how special this event is. Just go.

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Lately, we’ve been staycationing at Christmas; flying during the hectic holiday season is sometimes just too much trouble and after 12 years of living in the New York metropolitan area, we’ve all grown hypersensitive to traffic. Even the word “traffic” makes us want to stay home, lock the doors and find something good on TV. We’re a small family so the holidays are just about us and whatever we feel like doing. Christmas Eve, we attend an evening church candlelight service (plus our church has a kick-ass choir) and our neighborhood puts on its own luminarias display. Christmas Day, we uncork champagne, open gifts, and watch vintage movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But if I were to spend Christmas somewhere else again, I’d love to do so in the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America, places where I think there might be a bit more Jesus and sunshine and a bit less Santa and cold. While the commercialism of Christmas bothers me every year, I do love all the lights and Christmas trees (the origami tree at New York’s American Museum of Natural History remains my all-time favorite and is worth braving the crowds) and I’m genuinely moved by the Nativity. I’ve never been very religious and although I was baptized Catholic, I never made Communion. But a story about a down-and-out couple wandering the desert and a baby and angels and people feeling hopeful is pretty cool. It’s not too different from what the Red Willow People at Taos Pueblo do every year—create light in darkness and tell the heavens “We’re still here, doing our best.”