If you’re in the column or commentary writing business (I’m still not sure I understand the distinction between a commentary and a column if there is one) it’s expected that come a major holiday – Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Fourth of July – you’ll acknowledge the event with a certain amount of verbiage.
So it was that I found myself preparing to head to Hudson, NY last Saturday afternoon and a botanical perfume shop my wife had visited the previous day. She thought the store would make a festive subject for a holiday commentary.
I suspect she’s right and I plan to get there soon. But as I was putting on my coat I realized that what I really wanted was a walk in the woods with our dog. And as soon as I made that decision it occurred to me that there’s little in life more in the holiday spirit than a quiet stroll through nature.
Tinsel and ornaments, let alone four-foot letters spelling out “JOY” on your front lawn accompanied by electrified reindeer, aren’t required.
The silence of the forest, broken here and there by the crunching of leaves under foot, or rather under hoof, by whitetail deer picking up the scent of a hunting dog and departing the area in an excess of caution, are good tidings enough.
However, I’m all for tinsel and ornaments. Indeed, I consider the holiday season incomplete unless it includes joining the crowds streaming along Fifth Avenue to admire the windows at Bergdorf’s and Saks and the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
That’s even as I’ve grown increasingly skeptical of the tradition of cutting down a singular majestic spruce in the prime of life – this year’s comes from Wallkill, NY -- for the pleasure of New York City’s tourist hordes.
If the Rockefeller Center folks contacted and informed me they were bestowing upon me the high privilege of donating my tree in the name of peace and the greater good of the holiday shopping season I’d politely tell them to get lost.
Though, I’d never be the owner of such a specimen. The reason they’re so robust and perfectly shaped, as I understand it, is because they have no competition. They’re typically found on people’s front lawns. Which just doubles the travesty of sawing them down as well as my belief that the folks at Rockefeller should employ a fake tree. Or better yet hire an underemployed artist, of which New York City has its fair share, to fill the space with some cutting edge ode to the holidays.
But returning to those Fifth Avenue tourist hordes. And I do mean hordes. Every year there seem to be more and more of them – traffic cops now corralling them behind ropes so they don’t walk into oncoming traffic. And with Saks having upped the ante with a multi-story music and light show, the Rockefeller Center area has officially become impassable.
I still suggest you visit midtown. It’s a box that needs to be checked off. Without that experience the holiday season would feel somehow hollow, incomplete.
Not everybody shares my opinion, I realize. It’s even something of a conceit that Fifth Avenue has become the equivalent of a glorified mall, with the same stores you can find at any local mall -- Hollister, Abercrombie, Victoria’s Secret. More than a few true New Yorkers prefer the relative retail authenticity of Brooklyn and Queens.
Yet beneath the branding and the glitz Fifth Avenue’s sturdy old bones remain. There’s stolid St. Patrick’s Cathedral and just up the avenue the grand old University Club, the chlorine from its basement swimming pool wafting up to street level and wistfully evoking the Fifth Avenue of an earlier, less knowing era; one illustrated in a famous Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover. It depicts a sailor flirting with a girl under the University Club’s windows as its fossilized membership looks out upon the scene with a combination of distain, nostalgia and envy.
That holiday stroll also triggers a bit of nostalgia in me, personally, and the first time I did so unaccompanied by a parent or caregiver. I might have been on the cusp of adolescence and there felt something wonderful and empowering about traipsing down the avenue solo.
It was as if all those store windows – from bookshops that no longer exist, such as Scribner’s and Doubleday, to Tiffany and the department stores with their animated holiday displays – had been decorated for my enjoyment.
But all of that effort and window-dressing creativity often goes into creating a dreamscape that exists for real upstate. Snow tipped pine trees. Furry woodland creatures. Ice skating on frozen ponds. The cozy sensation of heading home through the forest to a roaring fireplace as night closes in on the shortest days of the year.
So what if the temperature was in the forties last Saturday and there was little snow to be found. Ultimately, the holidays isn’t about shopping, or only about shopping and dodging fellow pedestrians. It’s also about pausing to count your blessing. And there’s no better place to do so than deep in the woods.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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