Christmas in New York City – The Top 5 Experiences

Christmas in New York City

Exploring New York City at Christmastime is a dream for many travelers. This year I finally made it to the Big Apple to experience all that the holiday season has to offer. Here are my top 5 things to do while rocking around NYC during the most wonderful time of the year.

The Christmas Spectacular Show Starring the Radio City Rockettes

Radio City Music Hall
Radio City Music Hall is ready for Christmas!

The famous Rockettes have been around since 1925, and have appeared at Radio City Music Hall since 1932. Luckily, it’s not the same set of women who are doing those fantastic high kicks! The Rockettes anchor the Christmas Spectacular with their synchronized dancing and I couldn’t help wondering when they danced in a long line why they were all the same height. Did they only let women join the group who were exactly 5 feet 9 inches tall? The show also features a medley of Christmas songs, a live orchestra, a 3D appearance by Santa and his reindeer, and amazing video effects throughout the theater. The show was fast paced and very entertaining.

Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza
The magnificent Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza

The Giant Christmas Tree and Skating at Rockefeller Center
The Christmas tree display is at Rockefeller Plaza, between West 48th and 51st Streets and Fifth and Sixth Avenue. I walked past the tree several times while in New York and every time it was mobbed by tourists taking selfies. Upwards of half a million people pass by the tree very day. That’s a lot of holiday shoppers. This year the Christmas tree is 75 feet tall. I wouldn’t want to be the person who had to put the star on top of it.

The Rink at Rockefeller Center is an iconic attraction in NYC around Christmastime. I had big plans to show off my triple axel skills on the ice, but due to the cold weather and the long lines I decided to save myself the embarrassment of repeatedly falling on my butt in front of people from all over the country. Yes, I grew in the frozen northland of Minnesota, but I don’t really know how to skate…

Saks Fifth Avenue Christmas windows
Can you name the Seven Dwarfs?

Fifth Avenue Window Displays and Christmas Shopping

The fancy department stores on Fifth Avenue have spectacular window displays at Christmastime. The Saks Fifth Avenue store on Fifth between East 49th Street and East 50th Street has a holiday light show on the side of the building at night. This year the window displays at Saks celebrate the 80th anniversary of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Other great window displays include Bergdorf Goodman (on Fifth Avenue between East 57th Street and East 58th Street), Bloomingdale’s (on Lexington Avenue between East 59th Street and East 60th Street), and Tiffany & Co. (on Fifth Avenue at East 57th Street. While you’re window shopping, you might as well go into some of the stores for the big Christmas sales.

One World Trade Center midtown view
A view of Midtown Manhattan from the One World Trade Center Observatory

City Views from One of the Skyscrapers

No trip to New York City is complete without at least one outing to a skyscraper’s observation deck to see the city from above.  Thirty years ago I visited the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center several times. On this trip back to New York I definitely wanted to see the new World Trade Center complex that was rebuilt after the 911 terror attacks. The observatory at the new One World Trace Center (at 285 Fulton Street) is on the 101st floor and provides incredible views of the surrounding area. During Christmastime the observatory hosts a Winter Onederland (That’s pronounced like Wonderland, not Oh-knee-der-land), complete with Ollie the snow owl, a glacier cave, and Santa’s Village.

Unfortunately, the day I went to the observatory the sky was overcast and then it started snowing, so photographs of the day are somewhat dreary. I also didn’t get to tell Santa what I wanted for Christmas, since I heard he called in sick because of a spiked eggnog hangover.

View from World Trade Center
Wall Street and the Brooklyn Bridge

If you don’t want to go downtown, other sky high vantage points are in Midtown at the Empire State Building’s 102nd floor observatory (on Fifth Avenue between East 33rd Street and East 34th Street) and the Top of the Rock observation deck in Rockefeller Center.

One World Trade Center view
The World Trade Center tower from the Hudson River

Nighttime River Cruise around Manhattan

It may be cold out, but taking a river cruise on the Hudson and East Rivers is a great way to see the city lights from sea level. Most of the time you can sit inside by the heater and have a drink, but occasionally you should venture out to the bow of the ship to brave the wind chill for the perfect photo op. Classic Harbor Line at Pier 62 in Chelsea, Eleventh Avenue and West 23rd Street) has happy hour cruises that are a good way to kick off your night on the town.

Statue of Liberty at night
Still standing for freedom.

Honorable mention: For a nice break while walking around Greenwich Village, get a scrumptious cookie and a hot chocolate or a latte at the Milk and Cookies Bakery at 19 Commerce Street. This tiny place was inundated with Girl Scouts when I arrived. After answering their survey questions about my preferences in cookies, they cleared out and I could finally get to the counter. I had difficulty choosing from among the decadent desserts, but eventually went into a chocolate chip cookie coma…

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Poland: Then and now

Main square in Pszczyna, Poland

Communist Poland, 1984. The old bus was crowded as it lumbered along the pot-holed road between towns on the way to the mountains. We stood in front next to the driver. The seats were filled with old babkas from nearby villages, dressed in worn skirts and drab head scarves. The babkas were peasant grandmothers on their way to town to visit relatives or to attempt to shop. Some coal miners, already blackened with the dirt and soot of previous days, were on their way to work. My cousin Henry and I had left Pszcyna an hour before, and were on our way to Strumien. We were on a mission to find beer.

Old Fiat 125 in Poland
So small that your knees cover your ears to keep out the noise!

It was always somebody’s birthday there, or close enough to it. With large, extended families living within a stone’s throw of each other (and sometimes even next door), there was no shortage of reasons to host a party. My cousins were mostly young adults and I had just graduated from college. I was visiting the old world before I had to join the working world. The party organizing committee had held a meeting, and Henry and I had been given the task of finding beer for the party.

Locating and buying any particular consumer good in a communist country in those days was typically a complex and time-consuming process. If you knew the right somebody, maybe you could make a deal quickly. If you didn’t, you might end up standing in line for hours. More often than not, after waiting in line for hours, you might come up empty. We had already checked at several stores in Pszczyna for beer and couldn’t find any. Henry suggested going to another town to look.

The stores were a complete joke, by western standards. But of course the Poles weren’t laughing. One time we went to Katowice, which is a big city in the industrial heartland of Poland. We went in store after store and the only thing we could find to buy were carved wooden souvenirs. Jewelry boxes, walking sticks, chess sets, decorative plates. These were carved by people from the Tatra Mountains. Anything a tourist might be inclined to buy (and there weren’t many tourists then), was produced in the hope of obtaining hard currency. Ordinary consumer goods were almost nonexistent.

However, if you were lucky enough to have US dollars or other western currencies, you could shop in small specialty stores. Before being allowed into the store, you had to show that you had dollars to spend. In these stores, western consumer electronics were available, and there were no lines. When the headphones broke for my Sony Walkman, I bought a replacement pair and a music cassette tape in one of those stores. My cousins were envious of the fact that I could walk into that store and buy something.

Even seemingly simple items were usually unavailable. One day on a previous trip, I was bored.

“Can we play football?” I asked. Soccer to Americans, football to the rest of the world.

“No. We have no ball,” my cousin Peter replied.

“Why not? You mean none of you have a football?” I was incredulous. As a typical American guy I think I had at least half a dozen sports balls of various shapes and sizes in the garage back home.

“No. There hasn’t been a football for sale around here for years,” said Peter. “You can only get a ball if you are a member of the club.”

It was explained to me later that the town had a football club for boys, but only a few were allowed or considered good enough to join. In the centrally planned economy, some deskbound bureaucrat clearly had misjudged the demand for balls.

The consumer goods that were sometimes available were incredibly shoddy too. Some people were proud of their color televisions. The problem was, they were available in either red or green. By this I mean this picture! The picture on some TVs was primarily red. The picture on some other TVs was primarily green. I never saw a TV picture even approximating the right color scheme. Forget about watching the Wonderful World of Disney in Living Color.

The shows were mind-numbingly boring too. There was three hour coverage of a military parade, including long-winded speeches by Communist Party functionaries. They had in-depth reporting and interviews with farmers about the harvest and farm equipment manufacturers with their new tractors. The news shows consisted of socialist propaganda delivered unemotionally by comatose news anchors. I think there was only one channel.

Since it was so tough to get ordinary things people living in western capitalist democracies take for granted, we often sent a package to my relatives. My grandmother suffered from headaches, and a bottle of aspirin from America helped ease the pain. The package went by sea and took several weeks to get to Poland. Then the package would be mired in the Polish post office for an unknown and variable amount of time before being delivered.

Sometimes the contents would be pilfered. The postal workers obviously could see that it came from the US, and the outside of the package included a manifest of the contents. Don’t want the evil capitalists to sneak subversive literature into the socialist paradise. One time my cousin asked for a pair of Levi jeans, which were very popular at the time. We bought a pair and sent it in a package with a bunch of other stuff. Somebody at the post office stole the Levis and substituted them with an inferior East European pair of pants. A pair of pants were indeed delivered, just not the right ones.

We got to Strumien and finally found some beer to buy. With a case in each of our arms, we caught the next bus back to Pszczyna and joined the party.

The Communists were finally thrown out of power during the history changing year of 1989. Times were tough in the 1990s as the country changed from a rigid planned economy to a free-wheeling market economy. However, in less than 20 years things had tremendously improved. People were optimistic and motivated to work for their future. The new generation shook off the old burdens and surged ahead. Political and economic freedom made all the difference.

Main  square in Pszczyna, Poland
A cafe in the main squre of Pszczyna, Poland

A couple of years ago I walked around the medieval main square in Pszczyna. During the Communist era, the only places open were a milk bar, a small book store, and an ice cream stand (lodi!). The buildings were falling apart in disrepair. Now there were new stores, restaurants, and bars everywhere. The buildings were renovated and many were freshly painted. The square was packed with shoppers buying fashionable clothes, toys, and electronics. The TVs in the store windows had all the right colors. Young people lounged in the outdoor cafes smoking, drinking coffee, laughing, and discussing the latest computer games. Tourists stood in line to tour the castle palace called the Museum Zankowe.

And in the middle of the square, a small group of teenaged boys were practicing their juggling tricks and passes to each other with a new football.

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