Crawling along West 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, I gaped at customers who milled around one crowded store after another, bartering with fast-talking salesmen standing behind showcases packed with rows upon rows of diamond jewelry. Dressed in colorful silky shirts and double-pleated dress pants, many of these workers accessorized their outfits with rimless glasses, a lone diamond earring, thick gold chain bracelets, massive pendants and flashy pinkie rings. Meanwhile, other clerks arranged more glittering bling under the blazing lights of window displays, enticing passers-by to come inside and part with some cash.
An interminable traffic snarl in the heart of Midtown Manhattan’s Diamond District offered a front-row seat to a real-life version of a scene straight out of Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler’s new movie about a scheming, gambling jewelry dealer who works on “The Street.”
Welcome to the opening scene of our latest New York City adventure.
Once we escaped the traffic and hit the sidewalks, the itinerary we executed was heavy on traditional holiday fare. In no time, we had seen the Christmas tree, the TODAY show and the Swarovski New York Apple at Rockefeller Center and watched ice-skaters at Bryant Park. We checked out the holiday window displays at Saks Fifth Avenue, with its Disney Frozen 2 frenzy of a light show complete with a soundtrack; “Bergdorf GoodTimes,” Bergdorf Goodman’s tableaux of games designed as if they were viewed from overhead; porcelain mice toting boxes of luxuries from Tiffany’s; and Macy’s, with interactive video games, kaleidoscopes and a larger-than-life Golden Retriever who scratched its ear when visitors pressed its nose.
We also revisited some evergreen favorites, including the original Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends at the New York Public Library; Hamlet VIII, the Algonquin Hotel’s current resident cat; Brooks Brothers’ headquarters at 346 Madison Avenue; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where we can’t get enough of the magnificent floral arrangements in the Great Hall and the twenty-foot Christmas tree adorned with dozens of Neapolitan Baroque angels, cherubs and 17th-century figures in a Nativity creche scene.
When you keep a running list of things you haven’t seen in New York City, there’s always the need to check off a few. First was 640 Fifth Avenue, the former home of Mrs. Cornelia Vanderbilt, where Pamela Mountbatten, the younger daughter of the 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma and Prince Philip’s cousin, stayed during World War II. Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s tweet on July 24, 2019, the feast day of Saint Charbel Makhlouf, a 19th-century Monk of the Lebanese Maronite Order, encouraged us to check out the Saint’s beautiful mosaic shrine in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “Everybody loves him because he always answers his phone,” Cardinal Dolan said in his video greeting that day. “When you pray through St. Charbel and ask for his help in interceding with God, he always comes through.”
Then came the former sites of Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman retail store at 29 W. 34th St. and the editorial offices for The Craftsman magazine at 41 W. 34th St. Artistically arranged as a group of model living rooms, Stickley’s store invited potential buyers to see his practical Arts and Crafts furniture displayed in comfortable surroundings and complementary color schemes. A quick overhead glance at a revolving Christmas decoration inside Macy’s helped us discover some Herald Square history. The square where Macy’s is located was named after the New York Herald newspaper. All that is left of its Stanford White-designed headquarters is the monument to the paper’s founder, James Gordon Bennett, which incorporates two clocks from the old building and a group of sculptures from the building’s pediment which depict the goddess of wisdom Minerva, an owl and two blacksmiths nicknamed Stuff and Guff, who spin around and swing their hammers to strike a bell on the hour. Plus, did you know that Macy’s red star logo was inspired by the forearm tattoo that the store’s founder, Rowland Macy, got when he was a whaler?
New York City always offers some kind of excitement, and this time we found ourselves in the midst of the annual headache known as SantaCon. Throngs of people dressed as Santa Claus descend on the streets of New York City for a massive day-long bar crawl that begins at Father Duffy Square, a section of Times Square between West 46th and 47th Streets and Broadway and Seventh Avenue. Wide awake from blaring pre-dawn car horns, I now understand what Jerry Seinfeld meant when he wrote in Seinlanguage, “Everybody in New York City knows there’s way more cars than parking spaces. You see cars driving in New York all hours of the night. It’s like musical chairs except everybody sat down around 1964.”
Spending time in New York also provides the opportunity to make some great new discoveries, like the beautiful plantings outside the Harvard Club and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed living room on view in the American Wing of the Met Fifth Avenue. Created for the Francis W. Little House in Wayzata, Minnesota from 1912 to 1914, the summer-home living room that once overlooked Lake Minnetonka incorporates Prairie School characteristics like leaded-glass windows on all four walls, elongated horizontally-laid bricks and custom-made furniture and decorative accessories.
Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 1, 2020, is a spectacular assembly of clocks, jewelry and other lavish objects collected by European princes of the 16th through 18th centuries. We sought out the precious statuettes and the rare 41-carat “Dresden Green” diamond hat ornament from Augustus the Strong’s collection from the Green Vault of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden in Germany. Most amazing were the automata, like the German clock with the arrow-shooting, always-watching goddess Diana on her chariot; the perambulating penitent monk; the mechanized Swiss draughtsman that draws and writes poems, which inspired Brian Selznick’s novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, adapted by Martin Scorsese into the award-winning film Hugo; and the creepy chess-playing figure in Turkish dress that I read about long ago in Tom Standage’s book, The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-century Chess-playing Machine. Watch this playlist of 15 of these automata in motion here.
Riding the M4 to the northern tip of Manhattan was the perfect place to see examples of “The Mystery Font That Took Over New York.” It also provided a glimpse of Columbia University and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Protestant Episcopal church on Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem that has been under construction for over a century. One of these trips, I’m going to check out the tiny replica of the collapsing twin towers of the World Trade Center that was carved in 1990 on the western facade of the church’s main entrance and was recently restored after it was mysteriously destroyed.
Making our way up the steep, winding road to the hilltop in Fort Tryon Park, we arrived at our much-loved The Met Cloisters. Medieval Christmastide decorations of holly boughs, ivy, hand-polished lady apples, hazelnuts, rose hips and pine cones adorned the great archways in the main hall.
With the place virtually to ourselves, we wandered the interior walkways, now transformed into a conservatory where tender Mediterranean plants like bitter orange, myrtle and bay laurel spend the winter. We sought out special items from this magnificent collection, like Christ Is Born as Man’s Redeemer, the 16th-century South Netherlandish tapestry that is more than 13 feet high and 25 feet wide (watch this video about its conservation). In my favorite “Unicorn Tapestries” gallery, the Book of Flower Studies, an illuminated manuscript by Master of Claude de France circa 1510-1515, was opened to an image of a jaybird with a branch of hazelnuts (learn more about this 2019 purchase here). Best of all, I talked to Xavier Seubert just before his presentation on the Unicorn Tapestries at Advent, in which he discussed how the tapestries reveal both Advent symbolism, as well as ancient and Christian understandings of the unicorn.
Recall how much I appreciate my windfall of Advent readings? Ever since reading something about St. Frances Xavier Cabrini in The Little Blue Book for the Advent/Christmas Season 2018, I’ve devoted more than my obligatory six minutes of quiet time contemplating the life story of this Italian-American nun who became the “Patroness of Immigrants,” her prayer for peace of mind and the shrine at Fort Washington Avenue and 190th Street, right on the M4 route. Offering a quiet, peaceful respite from the frantic holiday crowds of Manhattan, the Cabrini Shrine turned out to be the highlight of my trip.
Born in Italy in 1850, Francesca Cabrini dreamed of becoming a foreign missionary nun. Repeatedly turned down by convents because of her poor health, young Francesca finally was accepted to an order, where she spent several difficult, discouraging years teaching and patiently tolerating her tedious companions. In 1880, she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Seven years later, she unsuccessfully sought Pope Leo XIII’s approval for her order to conduct missionary work in China. When the Pope experienced a change of heart two years later, he told her to take six fellow nuns with her and go “not to the East, but to the West.” A Catholic church in New York City needed Italian nuns to minister to the Italian immigrants who lived difficult lives in Little Italy’s dreadful tenements. Many of them were illiterate in English and injured from their difficult work as manual laborers. Worst of all, the language barrier and cultural differences had led many of these devout people to become estranged from their faith. This little group of Italian nuns was a Godsend.
Within a matter of years, Mother Cabrini had established social gatherings after Sunday Mass, schools, hospitals, convalescent homes and orphanages for New York City’s Italian immigrants. She and her Sisters visited prisons, instructed children in both catechism and in Italian language and culture, and started a needlework trade school for young women. Her mission also spread to dozens of schools, orphanages and hospitals in New Jersey, Chicago, New Orleans, Europe, and Central and South America.
Despite the lifelong fear of water she developed after accidentally falling into a river as a child, Mother Cabrini crossed the Atlantic Ocean 25 times in her missionary work. She became a naturalized citizen in 1909 and continued her work until she died in 1917. She was beatified in 1938; in 1946, she became the first American citizen to be canonized, and she was declared the patron saint of immigrants in 1950.
There are three major shrines to St. Frances Cabrini in the United States; the one in northern Manhattan is located in a scenic wooded site overlooking the Hudson River, chosen in 1899 by the Saint herself, where she had lived and worked. The mid-20th century chapel features a stained-glass window portrait of the Saint, as well as a beautiful mosaic mural made of Venetian glass and Italian marble tiles that depicts scenes from her life. A glass reliquary built beneath the altar holds a wax likeness of the Saint that contains most of her remains. A small museum at the shrine includes personal items that once belonged to the Saint, including her habit and nightdress, spectacles, shoes, fountain pen, dresser set, and a copper etching plate of her calling card.
Today, the Missionary Sisters continue ministering to immigrants, children, the sick and the elderly on six continents and 16 countries throughout the world. Every year, the shrine celebrates her November 13 feast day with five Masses, in five languages, over two days, and a prayer service on December 22, the date of her death. A prayer for immigrants is offered at the conclusion of every Mass. The day of our visit featured a concert of liturgical music for Advent and Christmas liturgical music on harp and flute, sung by Ruth Cunningham, one of the founding members of Anonymous 4, the female quartet known for Medieval chant and polyphony.
You can find images of Mother Cabrini at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, both on the bronze doors that open onto Fifth Avenue and on the wall by the gift shop inside the cathedral. Earlier this year, she received the most votes in a public poll to honor noted New York City women with a statue, but the committee responsible for the project did not choose her in the end. Now, a statue in her honor will be placed in Battery Park City’s South Cove, overlooking the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
To hear how magical Anonymous 4 sounds, check out some of the 20 albums the group recorded on the harmonia mundi label, such as Three Decades of Anonymous 4, 1986-2016; The Cherry Tree: Songs, Carols and Ballads for Christmas; On Yoolis Night: Medieval Carols and Motets; and Wolcum Yule: Celtic and British Songs and Carols, with Andrew Lawrence-King, harp.
For a unique look at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, read Red & Lulu, by Matt Tavares. Spend some free time with a New York City crossword puzzle and word search by Scholastica Travel, as well as this Manhattan, New York City word search puzzle. Check out Motherless Brooklyn, the film I saw advertised on some Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus-stop shelters, and read Introducing Henry’s Unsuitable Adventures, by Mike Reiss, that we paged through at Brooks Brothers. Start your own sightseeing wish list with I Never Knew That About New York, by Christopher Winn. The Met Cloisters shop has a fantastic selection of books, like Afoot and Lighthearted: A Journal for Mindful Walking, by Bonnie Smith Whitehouse, New York in Bloom, by Georgianna Lane, and The Cloister, by James Carroll.
Travel vicariously to the Met Fifth Avenue with A Bouquet from the Met: Flower Arrangements by Chris Giftos at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Barbara Plumb, with Page Starzinger. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Watson Library, the recorded Christmas music that plays in the gallery with the Angel Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Creche is a rotation of two albums: A New York Christmas, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s holiday-themed jazz CD; and Gregorian Chant Christmas, from the monastic choir of St. Peter’s Abbey, Solesmes, France. Recreate the “Ute Lemper: Weimar Holiday” and “Moya Brennan: An Irish Holiday” concerts held this month in The Met Fifth Avenue’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium by checking out cabaret singer Lemper’s albums, Berlin Cabaret Songs, and Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill. I can’t get enough of listening to Affinity, a recording in which Brennan is joined by Irish harp virtuoso Cormac De Barra.
For more on St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, read Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini: Cecchina’s Dream, by Victoria Dority and Mary Lou Andes; Frances Cabrini: A Saint for America, by Sergio C. Lorit; St. Frances Cabrini: A Passionate Life, by Mark Davis; Frances Cabrini: Remembering the Journey, 1850-2000, by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus; and Catholics in New York: Society, Culture, and Politics, 1808-1946, edited by Terry Golway.