Christmas

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For the second year running we’ve teamed up with a group of NYC-based bloggers to provide an eclectic holiday guide. Our entry follows. Check out our other participants’ entries as well:

Manhattan User’s Guide: The Gift Guide: 21 Over $21
Markets of New York:
Festive Food at New York’s Holiday Markets

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Since I don’t read right-wing blogs or the L.A. Times with any regularity, I missed last winter’s most pressing political news story: Ornamentgate.

Apparently the noted art critic Andrew Breitbart pointed out last December that one of the White House Christmas trees included an ornament bearing the face of Chairman Mao. Taking this as hard evidence of the President’s deepest political sympathies, Fox news commentators and Tea Party wackos from sea to shining sea pounced like rabid wolves on a wounded reindeer. In response, The L.A. Times’s Culture Monster blog suggested that the whole kerfuffle just proved that Republican pundits make bad art critics: The image on the ornament wasn’t exactly Mao; it was “Andy Warhol’s ‘Mao,'” of course, in which Warhol parodically

transformed the leader of the world’s most populous nation into a vapid superstar — the most famous of the famous. The portrait photo from Mao’s Little Red Book is tarted up with lipstick, eye-shadow and other Marilyn Monroe-style flourishes.Where did the Christmas decoration come from?

“We took about 800 ornaments left over from previous administrations,” First Lady Michelle Obama explained in an earlier press release about getting the White House ready for the holidays, “we sent them to 60 local community groups throughout the country, and asked them to decorate them to pay tribute to a favorite local landmark and then send them back to us for display here at the White House.”

The precise source of the Warhol ornament is not known. But Warhol’s Maos are in art museum collections from coast to coast, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago (whose painting most resembles the ornament image) and both the County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum has several.

Oh, and at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, the National Gallery of Art has 21 different versions of Warhol’s “Mao.” Twenty-one. Wait until Big Government bloggers find out about the Communist takeover of the National Gallery.

Newsworthy? Probably not, though Fox’s Sean Hannity has already this year presented his astute fans with a poll about whether the Mao ornament is likely to be on display again. (Don’t click that link unless you want to tumble down a right-wing rabbit hole filled with bile and used tea bags.)

I discovered this most important of national holiday stories while poking around the Web the other day investigating a trend I’ve noted in recent years: the proliferation of Warhol-designed Christmas paraphernalia. It started with Christmas cards.

You’ve probably seen dozens of cards by Warhol around this season (and in recent years) at hip little book and paper shops without realizing they were Warhol’s.

The site art.com has dozens of Warhol holiday designs available, not only on cards, but also prints suitable for framing, which I suppose you’d store away somewhere for the rest of the year when they’re less seasonably appropriate for your wall space. In New York? Really?

I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising that such items exist. After all, the man was somewhat religious–he went to Mass, especially on big holidays, and he probably had a Catholic sense of wanting nice holiday images around when the season called for it. Plus he worked in advertising, which is where most of these designs appear to have originated. (They date by and large to the late 50s.)

Some of them are fairly traditional, such as “Angel, 1957 (with holly)”; others seem to be cheeky nods at the holiday’s commercial excess, if not at the consumer origins of Warhol’s images themselves. I hope WikiLeaks is on top of this issue: we have the right to know if our elected representatives are sending out holiday greetings using subversive Warhol shoe designs, which could suggest that religion has been supplanted by capitalist commodity fetishism. Imagine!

It turns out that the right-wingers need to chill a little: Warhol’s Christmas designs have been deemed safe by kids-crafts bloggers. I was relieved to find that someone at artprojectsforkids.org was selling do-it-yourself Warhol Christmas tree murals, though I’m not sure how the Warhol Foundation would feel about the copyright issues involved. Grinches.

Then there are efforts that go overboard in the opposite direction, trying to make Warhol into Saint Andy, a Santa Claus for our post-postmodern world. The Guardian‘s design blog, reviewing Warhol’s reissued Christmas images a few years ago, went a little too far down that path:

People who knew Warhol testify to his punctilious generosity in giving well-chosen Christmas gifts. He believed in the American Christmas, just as he believed in Elvis and Marilyn. He knew a collective dream when he saw one. In his 1981 painting Myths, he portrays 10 American icons of the supernatural and the superhuman. Together with the Wicked Witch of the West, Uncle Sam, Dracula and Mickey Mouse, there is a slightly disreputable Santa Claus. It is Rockwell’s Christmas deity who held the boy in his hand, made seedily real. A man dressed up, a store Santa.

In his last years, Warhol’s art suddenly became more personal — although at the time no one recognised it. It seemed logical that he should start a series of paintings based on a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper — in the 60s he had done a Mona Lisa. In fact, by making his own religious art, Warhol was expressing himself. It became public knowledge only after his death that he had been a regular church-goer who remained loyal to the piety of his immigrant mother. He habitually did charity work with homeless New Yorkers at the Church of Heavenly Rest, whose rector recalled that Warhol served food and cleaned up at communal meals — you think again of those lonely soup cans, those generous Christmas cards.

There’s a photograph of Warhol serving charity meals at his New York church. There are no decorations up, but still I see Christmas in it. “It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad …” says the spirit of Marley in A Christmas Carol: walk abroad and touch other souls. Andy Warhol’s does, more than most.

Thanks, but I prefer a Warhol that can be snarky, even at Christmas Mass, one who can poke fun at Americans’ commercial excesses even as he profits from them. Can’t we revive some holiday traditions that preserve a little authentic Warholian spirit (if the idea of an “authentic Warhol” isn’t too much of an oxymoron)? How about annual screenings in Union Square of “****” (otherwise known as the “25-Hour Film”), which includes a 33-minute segment of a 1966-67 Greenwich Village production of A Christmas Carol, staged at Caffe Cino, with Warhol hanger-on Ondine as Scrooge.

Or perhaps we can gather nearby at the site of the Factory or Max’s Kansas City and read Christmas entries from The Andy Warhol Diaries (a great gift idea, by the way). My favorite? Christmas dinner 1976, at Mick and Bianca Jagger’s place on 66th Street, where Mick dished out liberal amounts of holiday snow to guests:

Mick sat down next to Bob Colacello and put his arm around him and offered him a pick-me-up, and Bob said, “Why yes, I am rather tied,” and just as he was about to get it, Yoko and John Lennon walked in and Mick was so excited to see them that he ran over with the spoon that he was about to put under Bob’s nose and put it under John Lennon’s.

Halston and Loulou de la Falaise put a lot of the pick-me-up in a covered dish on the coffee table and when someone they liked would sit down they’d tell them, “Lift it up and get a surprise.” Paloma Picasso was there. Jay Johnson brought Delia Doherty. The dinner was terrific. Mick and Bianca forgot to bring out the dessert, though.

Then again, maybe conservatives should be a little unsettled by Warhol. Let them rail. Do we really want to live in a world where Warhol’s joined forces with Walmart?

p.s. Dear Andy Claus, I wouldn’t complain to find this in my stocking either. But I’d rather you buy it from McNally Jackson than some online megachain.

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We’re pleased to join with a group of other NYC blogs in a collaboratively produced 2009 holiday guide. See the bottom of this entry for links to participating sites.

nissenbaum.jpgHow about putting a little history in your holiday basket? Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas is a perennial favorite around these parts.

Nissenbaum, in a highly entertaining narrative, shows not only that the American version of the holiday has been commercial from the start (the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade was a late arrival on that front), but also that it’s what you’d call an “invented tradition.” All the bits about Dutch origins were part of an effort among nineteenth-century New York gentry — the self-anointed Knickerbocker set — to create a colonial cultural heritage for themselves by establishing the social preeminence of their Dutch lineage, real or imagined. A byproduct: Santa Claus was able to sidestep an earlier Puritan bias against celebrating Christmas in the American colonies. Cyrus has summarized Nissenbaum’s argument here before, but Santa Claus was smuggled into New York by the group of patricians also responsible for the New-York Historical Society (especially John PIntard) and writer-friends such as Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore.

Irving doesn’t need so much introduction, but many readers may not have heard of Moore, or if they have they know him only for his poem “A Visit from St. Nicolas,” more familiarly known by its first line: “Twas the night before Christmas.” But Moore left his imprint all over the city, especially in Chelsea, the neighborhood named after his family estate. (His father was both the president of Columbia College and New York’s Protestant Episcopal Bishop; his grandfather, a British officer, had purchased farmland in Chelsea in the 1750s, but the Moores had owned land in Queens since the 1650s.) After graduating Columbia as valedictorian in 1798, Moore dabbled in belles lettres and anti-Jeffersonian pamphleteering, compiled a two-volume English-Hebrew lexicon, and donated the land for the General Theological Seminary, where he was a professor of classical languages for three decades. (The seminary still stands, filling the entire block from Ninth to Tenth Avenues between West 20th and 21st Streets.)

Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas is especially good on making Moore’s famous “A Visit from St. Nicolas,” written in 1822, come alive in new ways. Ever wonder why the poem’s narrator was so quick to spring from his bed to see what was the matter (rhymes with “clatter”)? He probably thought a house-break was in progress. Christmas in early nineteenth-century New York, Nissenbaum suggests, had started to take on some of the elements of English seasonal misrule. But what had traditionally served as an escape valve — allowing laborers to let off some steam but ultimately keeping social order in check — was turning increasingly violent as a new industrial order demanded more of workers without giving much back. The mobs of working-class carolers who had traditionally demanded that rich folk bring them some figgy pudding — insisting that they wouldn’t leave until they get some — were evolving into “Callithumpian bands” parading in the street making noise and committing acts of petty larceny. (One contemporary described these roving bands as made up of “Negroes, servants, boys, and other disorderly persons.”)

I won’t give much more away, but Nissenbaum argues that the significance of Moore’s poem was to silence a little of that seasonal clatter, tame it to protect polite audiences. Santa Claus is a housebreaker, sure, but he’s bringing gifts for the kiddies. The “patron-client exchange” that had defined seasonal misrule (“We won’t go until we get some!”) shifted to a parent-child exchange that made Christmas a domestic holiday rivaled only by the invented tradition of American Thanksgiving, taking shape around the same time. Moore’s poem helped make Christmas “a practical simple ritual that almost any household could perform.” The upshot: we have nineteenth-century New Yorkers, not seventeenth-century New Amsterdammers or their Old World parents, to thank for the cult of St. Nick and for Christmas trees. (Speaking of Christmas trees …)

How to thank Mr. Moore? You might, like Cyrus’s family, make his poem part of your own holiday ritual. (He recommends the pop-up edition by Robert Sabuda.) Or try one of these annual Moore Advent events:

Chelsea Community Church (346 W. 20th St.) holds an annual candlelight service and reading of Moore’s poem. This year’s event happens on December 13 at 6 pm. According to the NYC Parks & Rec website, at the nearby Clement Clarke Moore Park (W 22nd St. at 10th Ave.), neighborhood folk gather on the Sunday before Christmas for a reading of his poem. A similar event takes place uptown, in Washington Heights, at the Church of the Intercession (155th St. and Broadway), where people gather for carols, a reading of Moore’s poem, and a candlelight march to Moore’s grave site, in the Trinity Cemetery on 155th Street. This celebration has apparently been going on since 1911; this year it takes place December 20 at 4 pm.

A few other historically oriented seasonal suggestions:

If you’d like to seek out a patrician New York Christmas that predates Moore’s poem (and hence is decidedly not Santa-centered), check the seasonal calendar for the eighteenth-century Van Cortlandt House Museum in the Bronx.

Jewish historians of Christmas, Episcopalian compilers of Hebrew lexicons, and Tin Pan Alley’s Jewish Christmas Broadway musicals notwithstanding, maybe Christmas just isn’t your thing? Then you probably already know the traditional alternative for December 25 is dim sum. We’re not exactly sure when this practice started, but the big decision, these days, is whether to go with Jing Fong or Golden Unicorn. When you’re finished eating, work off some calories on Big Onion’s 19th Annual Dec. 25 walking tour of the old Jewish Lower East Side.

George Balanchine’s Nutcracker has been a tradition in New York City since 1954. The very thought may make you yawn. If so, did you know that Uptown Dance Academy has been performing Black Nutcracker since 1995? Catch it at the Apollo Theater on December 22nd; proceeds go toward a new studio for the kids.

If you’d like to revive a non-commercial historic NYC holiday tradition, try “calling on” (visiting) as many friends as possible on New Year’s Day. You’ll need to bring the equivalent of a photographic calling card to leave behind. I suppose you could do something like this on Facebook, but we’re fans of the slow media version that requires actual travel from house to house. We wrote about it last holiday season, as did our friend Esther at Ephemeral New York.

A final suggestion for those who’d prefer to bring a little misrule back to your yule: you might consider joining in the annual Parade of Santas in Santacon NYC 2009, on December 12. Be warned: though some participants will be decked out in period costumes, you may also encounter pub crawlers with puke in their beards. (Putting the ho back in ho! ho! ho! since 1994. A little Santacon history here.) We suggest it in the spirit of the nineteenth-century Callithumpian bands, mentioned above.

Discover lots more in the 2009 “NYC Bloggers Do the Holidays” Guide:

Brooklyn Based:
Home for the Holidays

Give and Get:
Tis The Season to Volunteer

the improvised life:
unwrapping the holidays

Manhattan User’s Guide:
The Gift Guide

Mommy Poppins:
Offbeat and Multicultural Family Holiday Events

NY Barfly:
It’s the Holidays, Time to Drink

NewYorkology:
Big-ticket holiday shows: Nutcracker, Rockettes, Wintuk

offManhattan:

Ten Holiday Getaways Near NYC

the skint:
30 days of skintmas – a cheap (or free!) holidays-in-nyc-treat for every day of the season

The Strong Buzz:

Holiday Eats Old and New

WFMU’s Beware of the Blog: Happy Freakin’ Holidays Playlist
Walking Off the Big Apple
:
The Thin Man Walk: A New York Holiday Adventure with Nick and Nora Charles

If you write a NYC-oriented blog and would like to contribute to a future group post, please let us know!

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Broadcast in December 1948, and starring the same actors as the film from the previous year, a Lux Radio Theatre radio play of Miracle on 34th Street, in seven parts. Part the first:

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One of my favorite moments in Ric Burns’s New York: A Documentary Film comes near the end of the episode on the fight over Robert Moses’s proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have cut a huge swath through the old Cast Iron District (now known as SoHo) in order to build an elevated, supposedly high-speed freeway that would have connected the bridges on the East side to the tunnels on the West.

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The plan was opposed vigorously during a six-hour knock-down-drag-out fight at City Hall in early December 1962, during which Assemblyman Louis DeSalvio famously called Robert Moses a “cantankerous, stubborn old man” and said the time had come for him to release his grip on the city’s development. (The plan was on-again-off-again for almost another decade.) Burns follows the announcement of the proposal’s defeat with some news footage in which an older downtown resident, looking a bit of the gentleman bum with hat in hand, New York accent thick as lower Manhattan fog, says something like: “This’ll be the best Christmas present the people on Broome Street ever had!”

I think of that old fellow quite often when I walk through my neighborhood — most of which used to be part of a more sprawling Little Italy. The building I live in on Broome Street, along with the rest of the buildings on the north side of the street for several blocks, would have been razed to complete Moses’s moronic shrine to the automobile. I wonder if that old man lived to the end of the decade, when the completion of Southbridge Towers down by the seaport — built on 16 acres of demolished waterfront warehouses and tenements — led to a mass exodus from Little Italy. Or did he hang out up here? Are his kids still in the neighborhood, or did they move to larger spaces way out in Brooklyn?

A few old timers still inhabit our neighborhood. You see them around some of the restaurants and bars, which, truth be told, we pretty much avoid. You see some older ladies in the grocery store or on occasion hanging out a fourth-floor window watching the supermodels walking dogs and shoppers consult guidebooks on the streets below. I see one older resident on occasion when I bike my daughter to school. She scowls at us and clutches her little dog close if I pop the bike on the sidewalk to avoid traffic, exactly the sort of thing old ladies in neighborhoods should do in response to obnoxious newcomers.

esb_little_italy_3jan04.jpgAs annoying as festival season can be in Little Italy, what with all the sloughed off oil and puke in the gutters come morning, I love the street decorations and the Christmas music rising from loudspeakers on the corner or, better yet, from an occasional strolling brass ensemble. This is one moment in the season, too, when you can tell where the old timers actually live: they tend to decorate their fire escapes early in December, lights and fake pine garlands wrapping cast iron bars and ringing windows, giant cardboard candy canes wired firmly in place.

The intrepid writermama, who’s much better than I am about carrying a camera to catch candid shots of Lower East Side life — evidence of magic that still remains in crevices and corners — took this shot of a tenement on Mott Street, below Houston, my favorite set of holiday decorations this season. (At least I’m pretty sure that’s the building she’s caught here! If not, there’s one a lot like it.) I’d like to think these lights have gone up like this as long as anyone can remember.

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What do the old timers do in your neighborhood this season?

Photo of Empire State Building from Little Italy via Wired New York. 

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