Letter from America : Christmas in New York

Santa’s Sleigh makes its way to the U.S. of A.

by James Robinson

The final Thursday in November is Thanksgiving – roughly a month out from Christmas – and it marks the major turning point in the lead up to Christmas in the U.S.A. The spending then starts in earnest: Black Friday, immediately following Thanksgiving, is a day of such rampant consumerism that people are routinely trampled, occasionally resulting in death, and a woman pulling a gun in line at Toys R Us is not completely out of the blue. This year on Black Friday, $45 billion was spent in shops – about 40 percent of New Zealand’s Gross Domestic Product.

WROR Boston also switched over to ‘All Christmas, All the Time’, after Thanksgiving. Which, on a car trip, was awesome for all of 20 minutes. While post-Thanksgiving marks the time of year where Christmas becomes officially UNAVOIDABLE, Halloween had begun the first, more subtle signs of the coming yuletide season – with spins of Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas’ on overhead speakers in supermarkets, and occasional sightings of Christmas decorations.

The official American mode of endorsement of Christmas (although the author would like to note the growing controversy in acknowledging ‘Christmas’ in the U.S.A, with companies such as GAP and the Home Depot switching over to the more generic ‘Happy Holidays’) is fairly universal: a very large Christmas tree in a public place, and public performance of popular Christmas tunes. Americans however, bring a gaudy panache to the process. For example in Boston, Shaquille O’Neal will be the guest conductor for the Boston Pops Orchestra Christmas Special.

The following pictures are sights seen walking the streets of New York a week out from Christmas, 2010. It was a trip not for – but in the spirit of – Christmas. New York is a great city to watch, the ultimate in human theatre. On that level, it was a wonderful weekend.

However, choosing to look specifically at signs of Christmas around the streets was depressing. People look to Christmas 2010 for the sort of economic power surge that will start speeding up growth and putting the economy right. But really, if you look just hard enough at it all in action, with crazed, manic shoppers ripping the discounted flesh off the stores of New York, it seems rife with stupidity. After all the warnings of the toxic risk of unfettered market worship in the past three years, it leads to some harder questions: why won’t people simply just learn?


Bergdorf Goodman’s on 5th Avenue – “the ultimate shopping experience with premier designers for women and men” – seems a hellish place to shop for everyone but those with the highest tolerance for human chaos. The low ceilings, packed sales floor, inopportunely laid out displays made it a revolting place of extreme clutter. And not, as one customer review website says, “a must for those who want to feel pampered while shopping.”


Bergdorf Goodman’s was a mess. Piles of discarded designer shoes lay everywhere as 5th Avenue shoppers overwhelmed sales staff, and overly-made up women circled at disgusting speeds around the product, electrified by a potent fear of missing out to other shoppers, in a relationship to their fellow shopper that seemed bizarrely adversarial.


Century 21, one of New York’s best loved discount department stores was like Bergdorf’s, but without the pretence of class. It showed the same activity, in different clothes – hungry, aggressive shoppers hunting out bargains – spreading themselves frantically over the product of a store like ants on honey.


Angry shoppers picketed Leviev’s Diamond Store on 5th Avenue, taking umbrage at Lev Leviev’s sponsorship of, and profit from, extremely contentious construction projects on the West Bank in Israel. The protestors were not particularly well received, cars slowed down to take in the protest, before driving off visibly perturbed by it all, with some shoppers openly yelling at the protestors.


Donning a Mini Mouse costume (most other cartoon characters and superheroes were also out in force), heading out to New York’s most crowded sidewalks and forcing bystanders to either put their heads down and ignore you, or hand over money so their gullible kids can have a photo with you, is probably not the most uplifting way to make money.


Radio City’s Christmas Spectacular combines, quite literally, the “thrill of the Rockettes, and Santa” (Santa dances! With the Rockettes!), and has been doing so for 75 years (for anywhere between $45 and $105 dollars a head). Getting through four shows a day….there was a distended, impatient mass of families spread around the block in anticipation of the 5 p.m. showing.


Times Square wonderfully represents New York’s amazing smash of people, and its surreal potential.


The Washington Square Christmas Tree in the West Village sits in the background (underneath a replica of the Arc De Triomphe no less) while the ‘Unsilent Night’ procession makes it way through. ‘Unsilent Night’ is a “free outdoor participatory sound sculpture” where participants bring boom boxes to hold over their heads Say Anything-style while playing a separate part of Phillip Kline’s Christmas composition, on a march from the East Village through to the West Village.


A Christmas tree and Hanukkah candle sit rather forlornly outside of the New York Stock Exchange, caged off, probably from the have-nots.


All signs from Wall Street are that 2010 will be its fourth most profitable year on record, and if that wasn’t tough enough to swallow in the midst of rising American unemployment in November, Wall Street also wants to display to you that it has its sense of humour back.


Like any good Wellington- raised, elite snob would, I took shelter from all of the capitalism over the bridge in the spacious and relaxed confines of Brooklyn (where the arty furniture stores, galleries and organic supermarkets are half as populated but twice as expensive). Finished my weekend off with a breakfast burrito alongside the rest of Brooklyn’s brunch-loving hipster elite. And was delighted to find out that the burrito came with an in-house country band.

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The new American $858 million dollar tax deal seems to be a fitting message for the festive news cycle. There is a meeting of decreased income with increased expenses, all in honour of finishing the year with a feel-good gift of political goodwill and bi-partisanship. It has a certain effect but (past the sentiment) is completely impractical and nonsensical. There’s a sign up in a Barnes and Noble in Boston, near where I live. “Money does grow on trees this Christmas,” it blares out at every man, woman and child entering the store. It needles the same rage cortex.

Merry Christmas.

ENDS