Winter is a buildup in New York City. We know it's going to snow eventually, but the sky tricks us with a fluctuating pattern of brisk mornings, breathtakingly warm afternoons and frigid nights. 5th Avenue is a canyon, letting light down to the sidewalk between eleven in the morning and one in the afternoon, after which the temperature drops, the wind kicks up and the sun disappears beyond the rooftops' artificial horizon. It's a madhouse with people (not natives, I hasten to add) forming an impenetrable mass of bodies. All of them want a picture with the Rockefeller Center christmas tree or, failing that (and many of them don't get within fifty feet of the thing) a picture with anything that looks even remotely christmassy - I've seen people snapping pictures of each other in front of the wreaths decorating the local drug store or while they're in line at the deli for a particularly pricey sandwich, backlit by the garlands festooning the salad bar's sneeze guard. I've even seen someone insist on being videotaped while he watched clips from Friends in a store window.
It gets worse and worse as Christmas approaches (two hundred thousand people venture into Rockefeller Center every day between Black Friday and Christmas), and then everything suddenly just...stops, dead in its tracks, on Christmas Eve. Nice place to visit, but who would want to spend a holiday there? Me. I would, and I do.
The streets are empty on Christmas Eve, the tourists gone home to family, the businesses closed early or never opened at all. There's a sense of amiable companionship amongst the stiffs who do need to work, those of us trudging through the slushy streets to put in a solid eight before rushing home to family or occasionally just...rushing. Walking like we were meant to - briskly, head up, looking for a bar to kick back a few to make the falling snow sparkle and shine while the people in the streets enjoy the lack of traffic, the quiet, almost reverential tones of uninterrupted footsteps.
You can walk down the center of 5th Avenue for blocks at a time on Christmas Eve night, looking up at the lights and dreaming.
Christmas Eve is for the lonely in New York, specifically for those comfortable with their loneliness. It's the time for quiet and breath, for whiskey and the soft babble of the one radio station playing real christmas music, the wistful kind that reminds you of the way things should be but never will. Bing Crosby dreams of a White Christmas, he doesn't think he'll get one. It's the dreaming that matters.
Christmas day is for family and smiles and tinsel, for ugly hand-knit sweaters and cookies and ornaments shared and showed off. It's for the people you've touched. Christmas Eve is all for you.
For all those far from home on this holiest of city nights, I bid you fair travels and a happy Christmas Eve. We'll keep a stool at the bar.