Given New York’s long history as a cultural incubator, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of the most ubiquitous Christmas traditions and lore were invented here.
The first time St. Nicholas appeared flying across the sky (originally in a wagon) while delivering gifts to children was in the second edition of “A History of New York,” a satirical tale by Gotham’s own Washington Irving published in 1812. Another New Yorker, Clement Clarke Moore — whose estate, Chelsea, was developed into the neighborhood — swapped the wagon for a sleigh and reindeer and memorably named them in his 1823 poem, now known as “The Night Before Christmas.”
For those looking to experience Christmas cheer in the New York of Irving and Moore, the Merchant’s House Museum has ushered in the holidays with its yearly exhibition of decorations modeled after those of the 1800s. Among the old-fashioned trimmings on display in the landmarked 1832 house, known for its Greek Revival interiors, is a tabletop tree adorned with handmade ornaments, candles and other items from the museum’s collection. There is even a bucket of water — a vintage staple should a Christmas tree catch on fire.
(Through Jan. 11, Thursday, noon to 8 p.m., Friday through Monday, noon to 5 p.m., 29 East Fourth Street, East Village; 212-777-1089, merchantshouse.org, $10.)
Misers with a long list of presents to buy this year might lay the blame locally; the city helped popularize the practice of Christmas gift-giving. The tradition was brought here by Dutch immigrants who gave their children presents to celebrate Saint Nicholas Day, on Dec. 6. As you flit across town picking out gifts, consider making the trip a memorable one. On December Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is running a train with cars from the 1930s on the Sixth Avenue M line between the Queens Plaza and Broadway-Lafayette Street stations. (It continues on the F line to the Second Avenue station on the Lower East Side, where the train can turn around.)
Christmastime shopping in the city, and the mania surrounding it, stretches back to the 19th century. An article published in The New York Times on Dec. 25, 1869, compared Broadway pedestrians on Christmas Ever to “an army of ants returning in ballast from some marauding expedition.” The author also noted the “pushing character of our citizens,” adding, “There was no cessation, no momentary lull in the continual gathering of the crushing and loud-talking stream of human beings.”
Two concerts this weekend offer a respite from the shopping challenge. On Friday at St. Paul’s German Evangelical Church, the Chelsea Symphony will perform a program of classic holiday music, including the Prelude to Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel, “Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson, and Aaron Dai’s “The Night Before Christmas,” which will be narrated by the actor and radio host Seth Rudetsky ($20 recommended donation). A candlelight service at Calvary — St. George’s Episcopal Church on Sunday will include a performance of John Rutter’s “Gloria” and plenty of caroling.
(St. Paul’s, 315 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, 212-929-1955, stpaulny.org. St. George’s, 4 Rutherford Place, Manhattan; 646-723-4178, calvarystgeorges.org.)
For a lesson on holiday cooking that will also satisfy a modern palate, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is offering a tour on Saturday of its tropical pavilion, where visitors can sample flavors of the season (vanilla, black pepper, chocolate, coffee and kola) in their natural forms and learn about their origins and uses. And here’s a tip: Admission to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (normally $12), including the balmy tropical pavilion (kept at 75 to 85 degrees year-round), is free on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon and on weekdays in December through February.
(Tours begin at 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., 990 Washington Avenue, at Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights; 718-623-7200, bbg.org, $18, registration required.)
Finally, those looking to start their own New York holiday traditions have ample options this weekend.
You may have missed the lighting of the tree at Rockefeller Center on Wednesday, but there are lightings galore to be savored elsewhere (for starters, Friday, 6 p.m., St. Cyril of Turov Belarusian Church, 401 Atlantic Avenue, at Bond Street, in Brooklyn, and Sunday, 6:30 p.m., Brick Presbyterian Church, Park Avenue at 91st Street). A nightly menorah lighting is planned across from the Plaza Hotel at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street in Manhattan (Sunday through Dec. 13 at 5:30 p.m.); further uptown, a tree and menorah lighting ceremony with caroling will unfold at Carl Schurz Park (Sunday, 5 p.m., East End Avenue and 86th Street).
For a less conventional experience, wander past the decorated homes of Dyker Heights (between 83rd and 86th Streets and 11th and 13th Avenues in Brooklyn), where neighbors compete for the best Christmas lights display.
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