I Like New York in Yule

With Rockettes, stores and Scrooges, Manhattan evokes the ghosts of Christmas past

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Virtually the only Fifth Avenue building without even a sprig of festoonery is Saint Patrick's Cathedral. But then Christmas in New York, as in most American cities, is less a religious feast than a mercantile festival, whose motto could be "Buy now, pray later." Many retailers rely on this season for fully half their sales and profits. Similarly, performing-arts organizations use holiday chestnuts like Amahl and the Night Visitors and Handel's Messiah as surefire crowd lures. The New York City Ballet's production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker plays to more than 100,000 people each Christmas and earns the company a fat $5.6 million. For regional theaters, A Christmas Carol is an even bigger cash cow. "It pays the bills for the rest of the season," says Lawrence Harbison of Samuel French Inc., the premier play- licensing house. The adaptation of Dickens' 1843 cautionary classic is by far the most widely produced play on the regional circuit.

It is also, this month, a Broadway-style quadruple whammy. This week brings A Tuna Christmas (a sequel to the long-running Texas jape Greater Tuna), featuring a disaster-prone production of the Dickens story. In two weeks Patrick Stewart shucks his Star Trek: Generations uniform for the dark garb of Ebenezer Scrooge to give 21 dramatic readings of A Christmas Carol. This is Stewart's third New York Christmas in four years, and each time his show has sold out, leading to successively larger venues. This year he will fill the 1,400-seat Richard Rodgers Theatre at $40 and $50 a ticket. Thus does Captain Picard of the 24th century reach back to the 19th -- for one man who made a profitable career of reading A Christmas Carol onstage, in both England and the U.S., was Dickens himself.

It has been said that with that little book, Dickens invented Christmas -- the holiday as we know it, with lavish presents and greeting cards, with liberal sentiment and family gatherings, and with the spirit of generosity helping to stanch the guilty suspicion that we hadn't been charitable enough on the other 364 days. Shopkeepers and toymakers can thank Dickens; put-upon parents can blame him, though the commercial excesses perpetrated in the name of Christmas were the last thing this radical social reformer had in mind.

A little of Dickens' furious humanism surfaces in the most lavish Christmas Carol on display this month in New York. This is the $12 million musical version playing at Madison Square Garden's Paramount theater with its 5,200 seats. The huge stage is dense with the crippled, the homeless, the starving -- and, in this morass of need, one man, Scrooge (Walter Charles), railing against those who would help them. "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" Add an "Are there no orphanages?" and you have the agenda of the next Speaker of the House.

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