At the holiday season, New York is sure to provide glitter and excitement, but Central Park needs to be covered with a pristine white quilt for the magic to be fully realized. After a heavy snowfall, I love to wander up to the Central Park Zoo (East 64th Street) to pay my respects to the polar bears. In summer, the animals often seem dispirited, and their fur looks gray and patchy, but when the temperature has descended to a pleasant 15 degrees or so, the bears seem energized and almost cheerful in their confinement. Last winter, I was accompanied by two of my grandchildren, ages 9 and 11, who wanted to see the new $10 million snow leopard exhibit. A barely visible wire mesh covers the two enclosures, and, if you are lucky, a big cat may stride past one of the plate-glass viewing panels, just inches from the faces of enraptured children.
On a snowy December day, my favorite place for a multi-generational lunch is The Loeb Boathouse, (entrance from East 72nd Street), with its lively restaurant overlooking the lake. It always seems like a place for comfort food, so I invariably order the roast chicken with truffle mashed potatoes and roasted onions, but the menu offers plenty of explicitly child-friendly options, including an infallible macaroni and cheese. (Alternatively, my favorite burger place in New York, J.G. Melon (Third Avenue and 74th Street) is just a short cab ride away.
After lunch, we continued our stroll up to The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street) to see the Christmas tree and Neapolitan baroque crèche (in Gallery #305). Since 1964, more than 200 Nativity figurines were donated to the museum by Loretta Hines Howard. In 18th-century Naples, the leading sculptors of the day — notably Giuseppe Sammartino and his school — would create terra-cotta crèche figures for their aristocratic patrons, ranging from 6 to 20 inches in height. These were then dressed by the ladies of the house and embellished with jewels and embroidery.
(I recall being dragged around various museums in my youth and deriving little joy from the experience. But in any season of the year, the Egyptian exhibits at The Met — especially the mummies — seem to be a hit with children, and thanks to the popularity of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians adventures, even Doric vases seem to be “cool” these days!)
Over on the West Side, the American Museum of Natural History (Central Park West at 79th Street) displays a spectacular 13-foot origami holiday tree, while next door, the Hayden Planetarium’s extraordinary Space Shows provoke cosmic speculation (though the famed “Star of Christmas” show, once integral to many a New York childhood, has been discontinued).
No winter visit to Central Park is complete without a turn around the ice and a mug of hot chocolate at the Wollman Rink (accessible from East 60th Street), though my favorite Manhattan chocolate store, Max Brenner (Broadway at 14th Street) is farther downtown. Older children may enjoy afternoon tea in the Palm Court restaurant at The Plaza (Fifth Avenue at 59th Street), beneath the majestic 1,800-square-foot stained glass roof.
The store windows on Fifth Avenue are a holiday institution, though the most famous among them, those at Saks Fifth Avenue, have been surprisingly lackluster in recent years. In 2011, the displays at Bergdorf Goodman were particularly memorable. This year, Barneys New York (Madison Avenue at 61st Street) has entered a collaboration with Disney, and the windows will apparently showcase Mickey in Balenciaga, Minnie in Lanvin, Goofy in Balmain, and Snow White in Nina Ricci. (I promise I’m not making this up!) I don’t find myself especially drawn to the experience, but girls from ages 5 to 25 may well find it irresistible.
Two blocks away, the famous toy store FAO Schwarz— celebrating its 150th anniversary this year — is besieged for much of day, but if you arrive when it opens at 9 a.m., the crowds can be surprisingly thin. Better still, at 8 a.m. children can take a 45-minute private tour, during which the store says they will be able to “test-drive some toys” and later “have breakfast with a toy soldier!” Children too old for Steiff teddy bears will doubtless find the adjacent Apple flagship store (Fifth Avenue at 59th Street) more to their sophisticated tastes!
To round off our day together, I took my grandchildren to George Balanchine’s "The Nutcracker," staged by the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center (Columbus Avenue at 64th Street). Balanchine’s production has been staged in New York since 1954, so in another 58 years, perhaps my great-great-grandchildren will also fall under its spell. Of course, there are other holiday shows: the stage adaptation of the 2003 Will Ferrell film “Elf” at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre; the musical “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” at Madison Square Garden; and The Rockettes in “Radio City Christmas Spectacular.” But, for me, no matter how many times I go to see it, “The Nutcracker” is the essence of the season.