Why is New York the most hated city in America? Partly because it is so very old, with all the ailments that attend decrepitude. The town is seen as a doddering, muttering, pest-ridden bag lady. New York can hardly remember the glory days when it was an empress, exquisite in its elegance and clout. In that gilded time, Manhattan was also the world's show-biz Mecca, a glamour magnet of theater, department stores and cafe society. Today those species are endangered or extinct.
Once a year, though, like a princess who has been sleeping in rags, the town stirs itself to recall its grand traditions.The grimace crinkles into a smile, the Grinch is transformed into Santa Claus -- and the rest of the country pays homage. For New York is 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 sibs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in Trump Tower and at Lincoln Center). They see a holiday show: the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, which will attract a million patrons this year at $25 to $55 a ticket, or another family entertainment (the Big Apple Circus, Shari Lewis' Lamb Chop on Broadway). And they window-shop on Fifth Avenue -- a promenade that remains the city's most bustling theatrical experience.
In its totality, the visit is a time trip to a prettier New York and a sweeter America. "When I was little, I used to come with my grandmother," says Nancy Murray of Scotch Plains, New Jersey, of her annual trip to Radio City. "I loved it; the show always gave me the Christmas spirit. It still does. And when my son is old enough, I hope he will come with his grandmother."
Every large city ties itself in a big red bow each Christmas, but no place gets with the holiday program in quite the way New York does. Across from the Rockefeller Center tree, Saks Fifth Avenue tells the Yuletide tale of plucky Art Aimesworth vs. the Dark Elves in six sprightly windows (with narration by Cindy Crawford, Peter Duchin, Brooke Shields, Dominick Dunne, Martha Stewart and seven others). At Fendi the Christmas trees are as svelte and haughty as the Euro-mannequins. From the windows of the Warner Bros. Studio Store, a behemoth Bugs and three of his Looney Tunes pals gaze fretfully across 57th Street at the Tiffany's display -- cuddly bears in tuxedos, snow gear and seraphim wings.