Every large city ties itself in a big red bow the last month of the year, but no place gets with the holiday program quite the way New York City does. The town becomes Christmas Central. Manhattan owns this glitziest and most sentimental of seasons, beginning with Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and culminating in Times Square on New Year's Eve.
Outsiders want in; they fill Midtown's hotels and clot its traffic. Secular pilgrims, they trek to the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center (and to its fellow firs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at Lincoln Center). They window-shop on Fifth Ave. a promenade that remains the city's most bustling theatrical experience. And they see a holiday show for the kids, and for the vestigial child in most adults.
The Manhattan-Christmas industrial complex dates back at least three-quarters of a century. Seventy-five years ago this week, Radio City Music Hall opened, and the following December this grand movie-and-vaudeville house unveiled its first Christmas extravaganza, staged between showings of a film. At first there were just two scenes: the March of the Wooden Soldiers, featuring the dancing corps of Rockettes, and an elaborate retelling of the Nativity story and the journey of the Magi. (The numbers were designed by Vincente Minnelli and directed by Russell Markert, who imported the Rockettes from Missouri.) The Music Hall shut down as a movie house in the 70s, but the Christmas Spectacular has endured. As a stand-alone attraction it still lures more than a million customers during its two-month run.
The Music Hall's success wasn't lost on New York's merchant-entrepreneurs. Today the city is clogged with live entertainment for the holidays: Lincoln Center alone has two offerings the New York City Ballet's annual production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker (which ends Sunday) and the yearly visit of the Big Apple Circus (through Jan. 13). Of the shows that say, "I like New York in Yule," we've chosen three the newest, the oldest and one in between.