No matter what your beliefs, everyone can agree that the fall and winter months are a time of reflection, renewal, and celebration. Naturally, we have to express these values in a typical New York way: go big or go home. What other city can have dueling claims for the world’s largest menorah — the one at 59th Street and 5th Avenue near Central Park, or the one at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn? (At the one in Brooklyn, though, you can get hot latkes!)
For sheer, over the top exuberance, Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights reigns supreme. It is to home holiday decorations what Spumoni Gardens is to Sicilian pizza. The residents, all with hearts as big as a tray of Lasagna Al Forno and electric bills to match, try to outdo one another each year with spectacles of light and movement that could be seen from the moon if NASA had ever gotten around to sending a paisan up there to take a look. At ground level, the sound, movement, and lights could induce vertigo, and the displays range from the tasteful to the outlandish to the surreal — like the lit, plastic manger scene that used comic strip characters from Peanuts.
It seems, however, that “go big or go home” resonates differently among those for whom “Go Home” doesn’t mean a subway trip to Queens, but a Greyhound back to Iowa or the LIRR back to Merrick. Longtime residents, I think, have less to prove than transplants, and have to live here after the party’s over. For natives and real New Yorkers, holiday culture and traditions are a mix of old and new; sometimes the two work together beautifully…and sometimes not.
Holiday culture, New York native style, is the Radio City Christmas Show, The Nutcracker for the highbrows, watching Miracle on 34th Street on TV, ice-skating at Rockefeller Center or Wollman Rink, and checking out all the Christmas trees in the City. The nice thing about holiday culture, New York native style, is that it had a beginning (the day after Thanksgiving), a middle (Advent), and an end (depending on your culture, Christmas Day or January 6). Spectacles were something you could go and visit if you were so inclined.
Now, chances are that the spectacles will visit you.
Sometimes this is awesome. Unsilent Night is a uniquely urban, profoundly moving way to observe a sacred time of year without any particular religious content. Starting in Washington Square Park and winding through downtown, this performance art piece is open to anyone, and utilizes the canyons of the City and crowds of people with boom boxes in this modern take on holiday caroling.
And then there’s SantaCon — an excuse for thousands of costumed frat boys and girls who can’t wait for St. Patrick’s Day to go from bar to bar throughout the City drinking enough booze to raise the barometric pressure in Midtown to 86 proof.
The organizers say the pub-crawl benefits two charities and is meant to counter the commercialization of the holiday. Nothing expresses the true meaning of Christmas like an event that warns participants “Fighting, public urination, and vandalism are unacceptable and a great way to ensure that there will be no Santacon in 2015.”
This year the group toned it down by mostly remaining inside selected bars in Midtown while they attempted to remove the last traces of resistance from their livers ahead of New Years. Just in case, it also brought in civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel to protect their First Amendment right to congregate and to go to any bar they want (I hope it reaches the Supreme Court someday, to prove that yes, Virginia, there really is a Santa Clause…in the Constitution, at least).
The odd thing is that when SantaCon started downtown almost 15 years ago, it was as a quirky, off-the-wall event by and for the locals — there was a sign up sheet in Katz’s, so the story goes. The problem starts when random local activities or events that add to the idiosyncratic charm of certain neighborhoods become trendy. Once that happens, more and more non-local, non-resident people want to get in on it, “go big or go home” kicks in, and herd immunity for all sorts of stupid behavior takes over.
New York can host all kinds of big, noisy groups — it’s in the city’s DNA — but it’s one thing to get kids ready to see Santa Claus at Macy’s, and another to have to explain, en route, that the pretty elf was whispering her Christmas gift list into Santa’s mouth.
But don’t get me started about that.