By Kevin Christopher Robles
The coming of the pre-Christmas season means something very special to New Yorkers.
It means that everyone is transitioning from light, warm-toned jackets to dark, heavy coats. It means that the stretch by Rockefeller Center between 5th and 6th Avenues, where drab office buildings usually stand like obelisks, suddenly starts sprouting massive, ornate, beautiful Christmas trees on practically every street. It means that, in immigrant communities from the Bronx to Spanish Harlem to Jamaica, traffic poles are converted into bright, shiny, starry light fixtures. Our large and magnificent churches always seem fuller during the holidays, too. The cheer is everywhere and “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” indeed.
From the outside looking in, New York might seem like a tough place to get into the Christmas spirit. We’re not exactly the most neighborly people in the world. New Yorkers are much happier when we’re ignoring each other and not engaging in any social contact unless absolutely necessary — but that’s just a facade. Because we’re all on the same page about our behavior, New Yorkers’ infamous rudeness and lack of friendliness is really just us being considerate; we’ve all got places to be and we’re all much happier helping each other not waste time on our way to those places.
So too are we with Christmas. The hustle and bustle gets redirected to nobler goals, to providing gifts and well wishes to coworkers, friends, family members. The city’s full of lights and they just get brighter during the holidays.
God is always in New York. The impersonal nature of the city may, yes, seem daunting and perhaps not particularly Christlike but the season really unlocks something that I think is very holy. Did you know that Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (more commonly known from its first line “‘Twas the night before Christmas…”), is about Christmas in New York? It’s true! The very poem that codified the natures and tendencies of jolly St. Nick, including his eight reindeer and penchant for entering homes via their chimneys, was inspired by the festivities happening on Madison Avenue in the early 19th century.
As fantastical (and commercial) as the modern version of Santa Claus is, one must remember that he is, in fact, a saint. They certainly understood this in 1823 when the poem was first published and so, even then, 200 years ago, God was right there — in Midtown Manhattan.
The city was very different back then, of course, but I have no doubt that lamplights shone brighter during holidays as they do now. Cities just have a way of drawing out the Christmas spirit unlike anywhere else. On any given tightly-packed New York subway car (tighter still as it starts to get colder), it’s rare not to see commuters without shopping bags full of tchotchkes, stocking stuffers and the occasional large toy box poking out. It’s inspiring — you’re always reminded that people out there care about each other.
There are a lot of Hallmark movies out there (we all know the ones) where high-flying business execs move back to their hometown and find joy in the simple. I totally understand this premise — but let’s have a bit of love for Christmas in New York, shall we? It’s a very Catholic city, after all. The song “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues, which is my personal favorite Christmas song, comes from the album “If I Should Fall from Grace with God.” It encapsulates everything awful and wonderful about the Christmas season in New York from the perspective of Irish Catholics. It’s boisterous and loud and rude and farcical and amazing. When you step outside into the cold air, the honking of taxis and the window lights of a thousand buildings around you, you look up and you see it’s right there: Christmas.
Kevin Christopher Robles is a writer and the studio production associate at America magazine, where he produces videos and podcasts. A lifelong New York Catholic, he attended Regis High School and received a B.A. in English at Fordham University. You can follow him on X or Instagram: @its_krobe.