View from the Hill

Christmas 2002 is history. But the memories of the holiday lingers on.

Jessica and Tom are currently residents of New York City, living on West 19th Street. Both are volunteer workers, sponsored in part by Mennonite Central Committee and Pax Christi. So it was only natural for our family to take advantage of their location to not only spend time with them on the holidays, but to see New York City, firsthand.

Knowing someone who has lived in the Big Apple, or is currently living there, was a big advantage. That way, the time spent traveling on the subway system or the buses were minimized.

And not only did we have two well-informed guides to show us around, Erin, a friend of Ben and recent graduate of the University of Columbia, Barnard College, provided us with a well organized itinerary of places to visit.

Our only requirement was to arrive reasonably on time, airline delays not withstanding, and be appropriately prepared to experience Christmas, New York style.

The rules of being prepared are: don’t look or act like a tourist. That means, blend in the crowd and look like a New Yorker. Wear dark clothing. Keep billfolds in secure pockets that are difficult to open. Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Always walk at a fast pace.

In other words, act like you know where you are going even if you don’t have a clue. Following these simple guidelines will minimize your risk for being targeted by pickpockets or muggers.

Adjusting to new surroundings and blending in was easy. I even wore a wool cap on the coldest days and nights, just like other New Yorkers.

But the surprise for me came one cold night when I caught a glimpse of myself in a window on a subway train. I looked like Hulk Hogan’s twin brother, complete with white mustache. It was quite possible that my immense size, due to the extra sweater under the jacket and stone cold look had something to do with occasional glances of other riders.

Aside from the traditionally fabulous Christmas dinner-which Deborah, Jess and others prepared from scratch, right down to the Turkey, sweet potatoes and dressing-the one week tour of the City was unforgettable.

We visited Grand Central Station and walked through Central Park, where some of our adult children made snow angels. We also visited Rockefeller Center and Washington Square.

On another venture, we spent two hours wandering through the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Believe me, it is impossible to take in all the exhibits in two days, let alone two hours. And on still another adventure, walked through Chinatown and rode the Staten Island Ferry-a free ride, by the way-past the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island and then back to Manhattan.

One night, we went to Times Square. The bright lights of the billboards lit up the streets. The atmosphere, even after midnight, was like a continuous street party, complete with vendors selling food, works of art and other items.

On Christmas Eve, we attended the Midnight Eucharist at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. The cathedral is the world’s largest of its kind. The inside dimensions are more than 100 feet high and over 600 feet long. Construction on the building was begun in 1859 and is not yet completed.

We wanted to make sure we had seats, due to the expected, overflow crowd. We left our house in late afternoon, arriving an hour later. By 9:00 p.m., it was standing-room only. The service began at 10:15 p.m. and continued beyond midnight.

Candles were given to all parishioners and the light of thousands of candles flickering among the immense columns of granite was an inspiring sight. The program-all of 16 pages, plus four pages of additional notes-was a mixture of carol singing, processionals of the clergy, pronouncements of the Holy Eucharist and numerous prayers.

Near the end, all were invited to participate in receiving communion.

As we left the service, snow began to fall, as if on cue. We headed toward home as the snow blanketed the landscape and silenced the sounds of the city. It really was a silent, holy night.

Aside from the cultural attractions, the variety and availability of ethnic food was an adventure of its own. There was the Ambrosia, a Greek establishment. And we later dined at a Ukrainian restaurant where the specialty was Russian pancakes and their own version of beirrocks.

We also had a late night dinner at Pete’s Tavern where O. Henry wrote “The Gift of the Magi.” And finally, on one of our many forays to the hinterlands of the city, we enjoyed Hungarian coffee and pastries at a favorite haunt of Columbia University students.

“So, Dad,” Ben queried as a grin spread across his face. “You ready to move here?”

“No!” I replied, without hesitation. “I’m not ready to leave home just yet for this.”

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