For us all, COVID has injected nonstop fear and paranoia into our lives. The news of the variants on the scene intensifies our gloomy thoughts. And not only does the global pandemic upend hopes for air travel during the holiday season, it also robs many of us of an endearing and enduring ritual: having a Chinese meal and seeing a movie on Christmas Day.
Let me beat you to the disclaimer. Yes, I know. This complaint is small potatoes at a time when the COVID variants heap more panic on to our already-aching shoulders. Yes: If this is all we are griping about, we should feel very lucky. For sure.
At the same time, can’t we please cling to those little New York City traditions that enrich our lives? For sure.
I have a special fondness for this day. Allow me to get a little mushy and nostalgic. I used to see a matinee and then grab dinner in Chinatown with my dear friend Dana Gordon, who passed in 2012. If she or I didn’t have a date at the holiday season, we’d go over to see a new film and have dinner.
Of course, we weren’t the only ones who celebrated Dec. 25 like this. People who don’t feel a religious affinity or have no close family nearby joyfully turn the city into a haven for having fun and shaking off the holiday blues.
I look back on my Christmas days with mostly happy memories. My very first Christmas spent as a Manhattan resident, in 1980, was the exception – but a big one.
On Dec. 25, 1980, I and millions of others still reeled from the (still) unthinkable death of John Lennon, as he stood right outside the entrance to his building, the Dakota, on West 72nd Street.
It was a sad day all the way around for me. I was alone in the city. It was freezing, too. I went to see “A Change of Seasons,” billed as a comedy/romance – say, just what I needed to wipe away some of my bleak feelings.
The snag was that it was a terrible movie. Not even the sex symbol Bo Derek, fresh off her triumph in “10,” could save that motion picture – or lift my motley mood. I imagine (see what I just did, there) that a lot of people shared my sad mood on that particular day.
But 1980 represented an aberration. Other Christmas days and nights were marked by good cheer – and memorable films.
The sacred Christmas movie often marked a signpost for me, too. It helped me to remember where I was at in my life, in romance or career.
In 1987, as I was starting to feel that I belonged some place in the very competitive and unforgiving New York City journalism scene, there was my Christmas offering: “Broadcast News,” starring the luminous Holly Hunter, William Hurt and Albert Brooks. The always-funny Brooks played an emotionally rumpled ethical reporter who reminded me of, well, me. (On the other hand, the matinee idol and vacuous character that Hurt played so memorably didn’t remind me of anybody I knew, for better or worse.)
I my memory serves me well, I saw “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” – pairing Steve Martin and the hilarious John Candy (portraying a sort of endearing if uber-annoying Everyman schnook) on the same day as “Broadcast News.” Or did I go for “Ironweed?” The pairing of Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in an adaptation of a William Kennedy story may have proved impossibly to avoid for me.
I’ve left out the other key component of the memoir: the food!
New York City makes available – gloriously – just about any cuisine you can think of. On an episode of “Seinfeld,” Jerry talks a new immigrant friend into offering strictly Pakistani dishes in his café. That may have seemed illogical to someone in the South or the Midwest. But it made perfect sense to me. Naturally, we’d have a Pakistani restaurant on the Upper West Side! What other Western city would even entertain this notion?
Chinatown was always the center of the universe for me on Dec. 25. The food was magnificent (of course). The streets were teeming with lonelyhearts and tourists, who sought a “real” New York experience to take back home.
It would be unfair of me to single out a specific establishment on East Broadway or Elizabeth Street or the like. For me, they were all worthy of four or five stars on Christmas Day.
We all pray that the stress of COVID somehow eases, and we can return to a normal life at home, in the classroom or on the job. Here’s hoping that Christmas Day 2022 will be a good old fashioned New York Christmas celebration, too.