The Christmas Season in New York City is, as you can imagine, pretty intense; at least it used to be. Our family had the usual Italian tradition of celebrating the holiday on the Eve, not the Day; and there, of course, was the tree trimming as Don wrote about last week, and there were the presents, can’t forget them. But there were a couple of other- out of the house- traditions we partook of as well.
They were touristy ones: a visit to the tree at Rockefeller Center, the Christmas Extravaganza at Radio City Music Hall, and of course the annual pilgrimage to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Thinking of these outings now, I see a progression of meaning, of importance, from the mundane and frequently annoying to the spiritually sublime. Mom and Dad would tackle these events with equal enthusiasm, throwing themselves and us, into the spirit of the season as best they could.
We usually watched the lighting of the Rockefeller Center tree on television and I am told they still televise it today which is kind of amazing in a why bother way. We would usually wait until the weekend before the actual holiday or sometimes oddly wait until after Christmas Day to make the excursion to 50th and 5th Avenue.
Now a confession: as a little kid, I remember always thinking how much I would have preferred sitting on the couch at home, warm and cozy, watching a Holiday special on television, then trudging through the frigid temperatures (we always went at night, of course, to better see the lights) and battling the frenzied crowds. I being a shrimp could hardly see anything anyway, except the lower backs of the grown-ups in front of me. Still, it was one of those things the family did each year and I used to think: “Well if it makes Mom and Dad happy”, it was worth it (kind of). Personally, one Christmas tree with lights looks a lot like another Christmas tree with lights to me, but the one we went to see did have two advantages: one it was huge, and second, it was in Rockefeller Center, which is a hell of a backdrop for a decoration. Still, the couch wins every time.
Radio City Music Hall opened in 1932 and it is a beautiful example of Art Deco styling and poise; Terrazo floors, marble walls, brass ticket booths, an exceptional elliptical grand foyer and one of the largest auditoriums in the world. Each year, starting about the day after Thanksgiving, the Great Christmas Extravaganza would start running. They pulled out all the stops for this one. The Rockettes, the world-famous synchronized dance troupe would perform four times a day, each beautiful performer wearing a skimpy Santa outfit and kicking up those highly insured well-groomed legs, as they pranced around the decorated stage to Christmas classics.
And then it got a little surreal. After a not long enough intermission, the show continued with a living Nativity scene, complete with real camels, sheep and cows (at least I think they were cows), costumed actors playing the Magi and Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus; yes a real baby played the starring role, no plastic dolls allowed.
But now think of this being seen through a young boy’s eyes. For the first part of the show, the Rockettes in their short outfits have been kicking up a storm Can-Can style, and they could have been dancing to Brahm’s Lullaby for all I cared; the music wasn’t the point. So there you are, dazed by this amazing show of dancing talent and female perfection, and then the curtain comes down, and when it goes up again you are looking at a manger in a fake Bethlehem and everyone solemnly re-enacting -for the believers in the audience anyway- an epochal moment in religious history. And ten minutes before you were checking out which girl could kick the highest!! Talk about mixed messages for an impressionable young kid. Was I supposed to be titillated by the dancers, or humbled by the baby Jesus?! Needless to say I was confused and convinced this had to be one of the weirdest shows I had ever seen. To be honest, years later on a lark, I went to see the show again and it hadn’t changed a bit, and I came out just as confused and bewildered by the thing as I had been as a kid.
A short walk down 50th street however, there was no ambiguity at all for that is where you find St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It is a New York landmark that began as a Catholic College in 1810 where it was built miles from where the city stood at the time. Through the years, that plot of land was a school, an orphanage, and a graveyard, before the cornerstone for the Cathedral was laid in 1823; fifteen years later it was completed and it was the largest structure in the city, the second largest in the country; it accommodated over 3000 people and still does and it takes up an entire city block. Its heavy bronze doors and wooden sculpted organs are works of art and to walk into the place is to travel to a different time, a different sensibility, of purpose. If Radio City Music Hall is a palace to showmanship, St. Patrick’s Cathedral is a palace to the spirit, an example of what veneration and architecture can do together, resulting in a personal re-examination. You can’t help but feel both insignificant and jubilant, humbled and yet full of righteousness, happy to be a small part of such a grand design.
I loved it then, and love it now. But as important as it seemed to me, Mom was, easily being the most religious of any of us, moved the most. She was a true believer, and our simple Parish on 14th street was a source of solace and peace to her; imagine the effect something of the scale of St. Patrick’s had on her. She believed in the power of prayer, and when she looked at a statue of a saint, she didn’t see plaster, marble, or paint.
Outside one of the many chapels inside the Cathedral there was a replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta sculpted in 1906 by William Ordway Patridge; inspired obviously by the original in shape, form and intent. It was oddly three times as large as the one that sits in St. Peters Basilica in Rome, but it inspires the same awe and reverence though not, of course, being equal in terms of artistry. But no matter; Mom approached that statue like it was the real one, her Rosary Beads in one hand saying her prayers under her breath, she would reach out to touch the image of the lifeless Jesus in Mary’s arms, and every time, every year I can remember, there were unmistakable tears that trickled down her face, marring the exquisite make-up she so masterfully applied earlier, in preparation for this visit.
I shamefully now remember as a teenager making light of the need to touch what was to me just stone, as lifeless as the body it depicted.
But as a young child, when I saw my Mother crying, touching the body of Jesus, I felt it was right; only she, the most worthy of us, should be the one to reach out and connect with such a symbol of Divinity.
I often like myself better when I remember myself as a kid.
Sometimes we lose something important as we grow up and become full of ourselves and what we know, sometimes we lose that which can make us better human beings; I know when Mom came out of that Church each year, she was rejuvenated; filled with the grace that made her the glorious person she was.
So there you have it; three Christmas traditions, ranging from the boring to the absurd to the sacred, all experienced in one night in New York City.
Quite an evening; quite a journey. I guess on second thought it was better than the couch.