Danielle McLaughlin: The Fairytale of New York

The Christmas tree stands lit after the lighting ceremony for the 84th annual Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in Manhattan.

The Christmas tree stands lit after the lighting ceremony for the 84th annual Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in Manhattan.

OPINION: Nothing like December in New York to trigger memories of a Kiwi Christmas half a world away.

Christmas in New York City can turn anyone into a kid again.

Pop-up Christmas tree stores appear on street corners.  Cheery vendors stack dozens of tightly wrapped firs against the shoddy wooden perimeter walls of construction zones and the smooth stone of commercial buildings.  My daily commute now features wafts of fragrant pine and the countryside. I catch a few bars of Jingle Bells as taxi horns blare and jackhammers heave.

But it's after dark that this city comes alive. Her many imperfections are cloaked by the nightfall. Christmas trees in the glass-fronted lobbies of banks and law firms call out to passers-by. Bells peal at subway stations as the Salvation Army collects dollar bills for the less fortunate. Barren trees, harsh in the daylight, are strung with fairy lights creating glowing canopies over city sidewalks. Christmas markets - collections of tiny shops like gingerbread houses - cluster around Union Square and Columbus Circle. And department stores are transformed into winter wonderlands.

On Wednesday evening I headed to my office holiday party at Saks Fifth Avenue, a swanky retailer that occupies half a city block on Fifth Avenue between Fiftieth and Fifty-First Streets.

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As I approached, Carol of the Bells rang out, echoing off the surrounding high-rises. A light show for the ages danced across the entire Fifth Avenue façade of the store, above the heads of hundreds of New Yorkers and visitors stunned into silence, watching, and taking selfies. Electric icicles dangled from seven stories up. A castle glowed and faded. Clocks and stars and wreaths and yet more stars and icicles burst into view and then flamed out.  Across Fifth Avenue at Rockefeller Center, the 33-metre Christmas tree dazzled, relatively quietly.

As magical as this city is at Christmas, this ex-pat always yearns for the kiwi Christmas of her childhood.

After waiting the interminable period between waking up and my father's return from his radio show, we'd open presents at 10:30 a.m. About a dozen Christmas songs played on repeat. Bing Crosby sang of a white Christmas. We felt no irony. The Pogues sang of soured love in New York City. We felt no sadness.

We'd dig into a late lunch of cold chicken and ham, salads, avocado, and crayfish and fish ceviche. We'd say nice things about the mint and cucumber jelly our elderly neighbour brought. We'd do anything to avoid actually eating it. 

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Later, curiously, Christmas pudding and custard would be served. A nod to the chilly Christmases of my Irish mother's youth, and my Australian grandparents' penchant for hot Christmas dinners in the scorching heat of a New South Wales summer.

This Christmas, like many before, I will find a way to recreate kiwi Christmas while wrapped in the embrace of a winter's December. Invariably, it's through food.  Next weekend I will again conspire with my northern hemisphere companions to add lamb, or Anzac biscuits, or a bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to the holiday table. All as incongruous as that pudding we ate as children.  And sprung from the same longing for home.

 - Sunday Star Times


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