Christmas Day memories, old and young

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Santa making an appearance on the streets of NYC. Photo: JH.

December 25, 2019. Christmas Day. Yesterday the temps in New York were in the low to mid-40s with a lot of sunshine, snow-less and easy to get around. Christmas Eve Day in New York was a quiet one. I took two of the pups over to Groomingdale’s for a wash and a cut. That was my outing for the day.

The nabe was very quiet for a Tuesday morning in New York.

I’d noticed it by late Monday afternoon, coming from a lunch at Michael’s. The traffic on Madison Avenue was light like that of a holiday. People had already begun to clear out.

Last night I was the guest of a friend at a Christmas Eve dinner at “21.” This is a long time tradition — now for generations — of families attending this special evening. Reservations are made well in advance. There’s a band for caroling; there’s the restaurant’s legendary barroom, and all of it evokes as sense of history of New York life. 

The restaurant is still located where it was in the late 1920s, halfway down the block on the south side of  East 52nd Street, where about nine decades ago its proprietors, Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns, operated a speakeasy. 

A century ago that entire block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, every doorway, led to a “speak.” It was the inception of the “nightclub” and the Jazz Age in New York life. Very often, an establishment also had a floor above for some sexual relaxation (by the hour, or less). Its barroom very often had live entertainment — a couple of dancers, a singer.  

By the late 1920s it was known as Jazz Street, the show biz birthplace for many famous musicians and singers of the age, like the now legendary Billie Holliday. Ironically, or otherwise, at the same time, on the corner of East 52nd Street and Fifth Avenue, on both north and south sides, were two Vanderbilt mansions, including Alva and Willie K. Vanderbilt’s chateau.

The south side of 52nd Street, between 5th & 6th Avenues – looking east from 6th Avenue (c.1948); photo by William P. Gottlieb. William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

A century later, all of that architectural history has been razed — all of it except Jack and Charlie’s “21.” Post-Depression and post-Prohibition, “21” became a sleek and chic restaurant and bar where the postwar babies came to fame and fortune and “21” was almost like their private club (except it was public). 

I always think of its history as a lunch or dining spot for movie stars, society queens and famous authors, like John O’Hara who was my inspiration as a writerly teenager. I thought of him last night as we dined in the same room that he dined (and drank) many many times.

The Christmas Tree was the key to a great Christmas to this kid back then. I haven’t had a Christmas tree since I returned to New York in 1992. But before that, all my life, it was a requirement for the pleasure of the day, always recalled like a kid. I still stop to look when I see one in someone’s window. It is eternal nostalgia of the best kind. 

My neighbors Charlie Scheips and Tom Graf always have a Christmas tree. We’ve run photos of their tree in past years because it’s an “ultimate” in terms of the visual tradition. I think it’s the work of Charlie who is the artist in the family. One notable aspect is that this was all put together in a day or two!  And it is a work of art and fascination and the best childhood memories, all in one.

Charlie and Tom’s tree …

And before we wish the world a Merry Christmas and to all a good night, we offer another thought of goodness …

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