Christmas in the Most Cliché City in the World

Christmas in New York reeks of the worst clichés — huddled masses standing around Rockefeller Center to watch the tree lighting, frantic shoppers inside the gaudily-decorated Macy’s on 34th Street, and drunk 21-year-olds dressed up as Santa Claus puking on sidewalks — but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, too. As a lover of the holiday season but abstainer of mingling with tourists from Nebraska et al., here are my tips on how to inundate yourself with all things Christmas while still maintaining your dignity.

Ice skating: After trying almost every ice rink in the city, the only two that seem worthwhile are Prospect Park and Central Park. Prospect Park’s rink (Lakeside at LeFrak Center) is huge. There are two outdoor rinks — one covered, one exposed — that are connected, and the nearby cafe actually serves decent food. Central Park’s rink (Wollman Rink) is more expensive and typically more crowded, but the views of the skyline while you ice skate make up for it. Unsurprisingly, the worst rinks are at Rockefeller Center and Bryant Park due to their pathetic size, nerve-racking ratio of tourists, and strict no-photo policy — avoid them at all costs.

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Holiday markets: Originating in Europe, holiday markets seem made for consumerist Americans, so it’s no surprise that New York now has a bunch of them scattered throughout the city. The one at Union Square is where I always end up buying Christmas gifts, as many items are quite interesting and locally made. Also check out the Brooklyn Flea and the Holiday Shops at Bryant Park, and don’t worry about shopping on an empty stomach because each market has an obligatory food section.

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The Nutcracker: If you’re like me and must watch (or participate in) The Nutcracker every December, New York has some great options. Of course, you should watch New York City Ballet’s version at Lincoln Center at least once, just because the theater itself is so magical, but there are other (and often cheaper) alternatives. In fact, I’m somewhat intrigued by a show called Nutcracker Rouge  — “a blend of burlesque and baroque, in which Cherries strip down to pasties and the Arabian dance takes place on a pole, and not the kind found in the North.” This year will be my first time watching Moscow Ballet‘s production at King’s Theater, the newly-restored theater in my own neighborhood. If you’re feeling cheap, there’s always the free Nutcracker performance at Brookfield Place. The New York Times has a handy article on finding which Nutcracker production is right for you.

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Afternoon tea: While not necessarily a Christmas tradition, I’ve always thought of December as the perfect time for a cozy afternoon tea. My favorite so far has been at the Mandarin Oriental because the food is tinged with Asian flavors, and the views are some of the best in the city. This year I’ll be trying the afternoon tea at Crosby Street Hotel.

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Christmas tree: Tabletop trees are a godsend. They’re convenient enough for lazy Millennials like myself, tiny enough to fit into our New York apartments, and are just the right size to hang what few ornaments a recent transplant might actually own without looking sparse. Most neighborhoods have tree vendors on the sidewalks throughout the month, and for about twenty bucks, you can carry a bit of holiday spirit back to your home. We usually place ours on a table in the corner, have fun decorating it that night, water it once, and never think about it again until, like, March (seriously, it’s scary how long-lasting the trees we’ve bought in New York are!). We have a tradition of buying one new ornament a year, and it’s exciting to see our progression of ornaments each Christmas.

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Baking classes: One of my favorite things about Christmas is the excuse to bake too many gingerbread cookies. But what if you don’t have the necessary appliances, enough space, or even the will to bake on your own? Sign up for one of the many baking classes in New York! I highly recommend Mille-feuille for their intimate macaron, croissant, and éclair classes. You’ll make so many goodies that you’ll share half of them with your coworkers and still have too many for your own good. This year I’ve signed up for Meyers Bageri‘s kanelsnurrer (cinnamon bun) class — perfect for my upcoming Copenhagen trip! Also check out BakedBreads Bakery, Milk Bar, Butter Lane, and Magnolia Bakery.

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Skip the Rockefeller tree: This is no shock to anyone, but Rockefeller Center during Christmas is grossly overrated. The tree is always lopsided, the ice rink is dangerously small, and the crowds are like Target on Black Friday. What can you do instead? Visit the tree at Washington Square Park. Watch the glowing musical stars inside the shops at Columbus Circle. Head uptown to Winters Eve for food, entertainment, and ice sculptures. Or gawk at the elaborate light displays at Brookfield Place.
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Noodle soups: New York is teeming with a wonderful selection of Asian noodle soups. Some of my recommendations include Ippudo (ramen), TsuruTonTan (udon), Sobaya (soba), Mew Men (ramen), Hao Noodle & Tea (upscale Chinese), Mr. Taka Ramen (ramen), Lam Zhou Handmade Noodle (cheap Chinese), and Nakamura (ramen). There is no other food that makes my stomach happier during this season.
Staycation: I love staycations. As a child, whenever my parents felt like escaping the city of Honolulu, we would drive an hour to the other side of the island to spend random weekends at Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore. There are so many reasons to take a staycation in New York. Maybe you want to stay out late in a specific neighborhood without having to take the subway home late at night. Maybe you’ve been curious about one of the hundreds of hotels in this city. Or maybe you just want a change of scenery. In the winter, especially, you may be sick of hearing your heater clanging all night. Or maybe your heater isn’t even on (if so, file a complaint to 311!). New York has so many fantastic hotels, it seems a shame to only let tourists use them. I took my first staycation last month, at the Ludlow Hotel, and it was such a lovely experience. I was able to stay out late on the Lower East Side and not have to take the 40-minute train ride back home in my heels. And the next morning, I was also able to hang out at one of my favorite coffee shops before the crowds arrived, since my hotel was right next door. For some advice on how to choose a hotel, read my tips here. If you don’t mind spontaneity, One Night is a new app that gives users access to low rates at New York’s hottest hotels (e.g., Ace Hotel, The Standard, Sixty Soho), starting at 3pm every day. The app also works in Los Angeles.
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Hot chocolate: My favorite hot chocolate happens to be from an Italian gelato chain called Grom because they make their hot chocolate by melting dark chocolate gelato and topping it off with thick, homemade whipped cream. There are three Groms in New York, but the largest one is in the West Village. Dominique Ansel, always playful and shamelessly Instagrammable, offers a Blossoming Hot Chocolate in which a marshmallow resembling a closed flower bud is placed in a cup of hot chocolate. Once it hits the hot liquid, the white chocolate cup encasing the marshmallow melts away, causing the marshmallow to expand and blossom into a beautiful marshmallow flower. Jacques Torres and City Bakery also have decadent hot chocolates (pay extra for City Bakery’s huge marshmallow!), and for those of you who don’t like hot chocolate, Chalait is a great place for matcha.

Miscellaneous events: If you still need more Christmas in your life, check out EventBrite and The Skint to browse random holiday-themed events around the city. Housing Works, one of my favorite used bookstores, hosts a quirky event in which dozens of writers and performers participate in a reading of “A Christmas Carol”. If you’re too intimidated to trek all the way to Dyker Heights to see the most famous, over-the-top Christmas decorations in Brooklyn, FreeWalkers offers guided tours. Lots of hotels and bars host ugly sweater parties, if that’s your thing. And Food52, my favorite online blog for foodies, opens a pop-up holiday market in Flatiron each December where you can shop for sophisticated kitchen accessories and watch cooking demos.

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Museums: Winter is an ideal time to go to museums — the sun isn’t beckoning you outside, and museums are a cheap place to spend hours in the warmth. The Met (pay-as-you-like), Natural History (pay-as-you-like), and MoMA (free on Friday nights) are obvious choices, but also check out the Whitney (pay-as-you-like on Friday nights), Brooklyn Museum (free on Saturday nights), Cooper Hewitt (pay-as-you-like on Saturday nights), the Museum of the City of New York (pay-as-you-like), the Rubin Museum (free on Friday nights), New Museum (pay-as-you-wish on Thursday nights), the New York Historical Society (pay-as-you-wish on Friday nights), Studio Museum in Harlem (free on Sundays), Transit MuseumMuseum of Chinese in America (free every first Thursday), the Brooklyn Historical Society (pay-as-you-like), and Museum of the Moving Image. Certain museums, like the Met, Whitney, and New Museum, have stunning views, so it’s like you get a bonus observation deck on top of admission.

Whether you celebrate the holidays or not, it’s hard not to feel the excitement in the city. If anything, think of this season as an excuse to watch burlesque Nutcrackers, perfect your macaron skills, and finally check out that obscene mall in the Financial District.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Defined by Our Family Traditions

It’s been four years since I last went home for Christmas, which probably explains why I’m so excited for next week. For the last three years, I’ve spent the holidays either with Anthony’s loving family in California, on a random trip to Toronto, or in New York when my parents decided to visit me instead. All three years had been fun, of course, but nothing beats going home. I imagine most of us feel that way. Despite the tragic commercialization of the season, this time of year gets two things right: a desire to be with family, and an appreciation (or at least toleration) of whatever quirky, incomprehensible traditions your family does.

Hosting Parties

My family used to host a Christmas party at our house each year. I would go all out for these parties — I’d play a series of Christmas songs on our Bösendorfer grand piano (I always saved “The Christmas Song” for last because it pulled the most heartstrings); I’d print out the lyrics and create little booklets for each guest so they could carol along with me; and I’d provide themed games and prizes (paid for by my parents, of course). Looking back on it, I must have looked so silly — a little precocious child, taking over a party of amused adults from my dad’s university. Our guests would spread out throughout the house, settling in the kitchen (for those who liked to watch my parents cook), living room, patio (for those who wanted to play pool), dining room, and TV room (for the less sociable guests). The enjoyment of our guests was always such a satisfying achievement to me, and my love for hosting parties has persisted.

The Nutcracker

I’ve performed in The Nutcracker just a handful of times, but almost any year that I wasn’t in it, I would watch it — either Ballet Hawaii‘s version at Blaisdell Concert Hall, or NYCB‘s version at Lincoln Center. Christmas never really felt complete until I saw the Snowflakes chaine-ing across the stage, as white paper “snowflakes” fell from the ceiling. The Nutcracker was one of the few times my company would hire professionals from around the world to play the really difficult roles (e.g., Cavalier, Sugar Plum Fairy), so students like me actually had the chance to perform with (and geek out over) ballet legends. I think all of us had a childhood crush on Joaquin de Luz, so when I saw him perform in Swan Lake a few months ago, I could feel the 14-year-old in me dying of happiness.

The Nutcracker is often looked down upon in the ballet world; it can be appreciated by people who don’t normally watch ballets, and there are enough easy roles that can be performed by nonprofessional dancers. Regardless, my ears still perk up every time I hear “March of the Toy Soldiers” and “Waltz of the Flowers”, even when they’re playing awkwardly at Duane Reade.

Camping by the Tree

The tree of choice for my family was usually a six-foot Noble Fir. We’d dedicate a few days to decorate the tree, each night bringing out a couple of storage bins filled with ornaments collected over the years. Some years, we even set up a tent by the tree and slept in the living room together while Christmas music filled the vaulted ceilings. It was our version of camping. I don’t know which one of my parents came up with this crazy idea (probably my dad), but I ended up writing about this experience for my college application essays. (Admissions Office of Reed College, did you find this endearing??)

Baking Gingerbread Cookies

It’s my job to help bake gingerbread cookies. We use a recipe from an old, disintegrating cookie cookbook that my parents have had for ages. These are still the best gingerbread cookies I’ve ever had — soft, chewy, full of spices, and exponentially better than those store-bought or pre-made dough versions. Baking these cookies takes the whole evening. It involves sifting flour, using a KitchenAid mixer, rolling out the dough onto a huge marble slab, and refrigerating balls of leftover dough to be used for another batch. Even our icing was made from scratch, using meringue powder, water, and confectioner’s sugar. The best part, of course, was decorating the cookies. Our cookie cutter collection has expanded over time, and our containers of decorations are a sight in themselves: sprinkles in every color imaginable, gum drops, mini M&Ms, sour belts, etc. My friends would look forward to when I’d bring cookies for them on the last day of school before winter break.

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Ready for decorating!

Analyzing the Neighborhood

My family always dedicated a night to Honolulu City Lights, a month-long event that features elaborate Hawaiian Christmas decorations all over Downtown Honolulu, but what I enjoyed even more was walking around my own neighborhood with my dog Smoothie. Christmas decorations are a great way to learn about class hierarchy. I grew up in a neighborhood in which residents tend to be either upper-middle class or disgustingly rich. If you’re like my family, your house probably has subtle (or not-so-subtle) decorations that you’ve amassed from department stores over the years. We have glowing Winnie the Pooh and Tigger statues standing around a spiral Christmas tree in our rock garden, all of which are linked up to a timer so that the lights turn on automatically when it’s dark outside.

But then there are the other homes in our neighborhood that remain completely dark and devoid of Christmas decorations. These are not the mere million-dollar houses that I’m used to; these are the mansions that cost tens of millions and function as vacation homes to the elite who have their parties in Kahala and hire valet parking for their guests — much different from the wholesome parties my family throws! Growing up, I’ve seen families forced to move out, while speculators swoop in and knock down the older homes in favor of ostentatious estates that will be visited a few times a year.

Oh wait, we were talking about Christmas traditions…

Christmas Eve Dinner

Our big dinner was on Christmas Eve, and my parents usually cooked something like paella or grilled shrimp and honey-glazed ham. I’d spend the afternoon making a menu for our dinner, using any construction paper, snowflake stickers, glitter, and stamps I could find in my bedroom. I still make menus for every special meal, even when it’s just Anthony and me.

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One of our Christmas dinners (and my menu on the right)

Opening Our Presents

On Christmas morning, my brother and I would wake up — usually earlier than on any other day, of course. We were allowed to check our stockings, which hung by the oven because Hawaiians don’t have chimneys, but we weren’t allowed to touch our gifts under the tree until after breakfast. When I was younger, Christmas breakfast was probably the fastest meal I ate all year. When I got older, however, I would try to play it cool by taking my time and pretending that I wasn’t looking forward to opening presents that much. When we finally got to open our presents, the four of us would take turns, and one person (usually my mom or me) would write down where each gift came from so it would be easy to write thank-you cards later.

The traditions we grow up with define the type of person we become. My traditions explain why I know all the words to more Christmas songs than I care to admit, why I really want a KitchenAid mixer even though our tiny kitchen in Brooklyn doesn’t have the counter space for it, and why there is a collection of menus on our fridge — a great way to document exactly which wine we liked that one Thanksgiving, by the way.

Appreciate the random traditions your family does. Anthony and I have already created some of our own Christmas traditions since moving to New York: afternoon tea (this year we’re trying the one at the Mandarin Oriental), buying one symbolic ornament a year for our tabletop tree, and gift shopping at the holiday pop-up market in Union Square. It will be interesting to see which traditions from our families and from our time in New York will live on when we start our own family down the line.

May you all be stuffed with good food, warm memories, and traditions (old and new) this season!