Strolling does not seem like the appropriate word to describe any sort of walking during the days before Christmas. Instead, an image of irritable husbands weighed down with bags as their wives savagely push other shoppers out of their stomping grounds seems to be a more likely scenario.
While this may be true of your average all-American mall or downtown, strolling towards the forever classy Central Park through the avenues of the Upper East Side can instead give you a sense of a Christmas of bygone times, when couples clacked by in carriages and ornate buildings were adorned with wreaths and lights with particular care and precision.
Begin at a New York landmark that seems like it was oddly plopped down between the Tiffany’s and Sephora’s of the Upper East Side-St. Patrick’s Cathedral (460 Madison Ave., between 50th and 51st sts.), a grandiose Gothic cathedral, its two towers stretching just as far as the most modern Manhattan buildings as its ornate carvings entice the wondering eye. Starting your day here, before trotting off to deal with the more superficial aspects of the Christmas holiday, can leave you religiously fulfilled, with four Sunday masses (at 7, 8, 9, and 10:15am) that will certainly live up to the cathedral’s world-renowned reputation.
Only after having filled yourself with the quiet reverence overflowing any grand cathedral should you be allowed to dare pass (quickly breaking the old-fashioned New York feel) two of the most hectic, noisy, and aggravating areas during Manhattan’s Christmas season-Saks Fifth Avenue (311 Fifth Ave., at 49th St.) and Bloomingdales (1000 Third Ave., between 59th and 60th sts.). Even though experienced New Yorkers have difficulties winding their way through the sidewalks of these department stores brimming with determined women, the lights, wreaths, and shimmering decorations flowing around them have the quaint ability to make those hard shoves seem like gentle taps.
Moving back to old New York, only blocks away from Bloomingdales, stop for a hearty lunch or mid-day snack at the socialite’s chocolate playground, Serendipity 3 (225 E 60th St., between 2nd and 3rd aves.). While infamous for their gigantic frozen hot chocolate and other equally as tempting desserts and ice creams, Serendipity 3 also has substantial lunch and dinner fare for the persuasive sensible side in you to enjoy while eyeing the somewhat upper-crust (at least compared to the more common ice-cream shops) decor of this goodies spot.
After leaving Serendipity 3, your face smeared with chocolate, get another kind of fill-one of gigantic, glamorous decorations-by backtracking to the crossing of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, where a gigantic crystal snowflake will be waiting to stun you with its blinding reflections of the sun. Take a moment to pity the drivers struck by its magnificent glare.
Now it’s time to discard the husbands and polish those credit cards as the women make their way to shop, or, for most people, window shop, on Madison Avenue among the refined shops of Ralph Lauren, Gianni Versace, Moschino, La Perla, Missoni, and Cesare Paciotti, among other fur- and silk-filled boutiques. Even if you don’t have the credit limit to splurge on the ridiculously-priced fashion "essentials," parade inside like you’re Vanderbilt married to a Hilton and ignore those snot-nosed glances from the 90-pound mannequins-where else can you caress the thousand-dollar Armani jacket?
As you stride to the end at Central Park, coming to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, take a moment to devour the past hours. Look enviously up at the flags of the Plaza blowing furiously in the strong icy wind and glance towards the upper suites of the prominent hotel, ones with vast views of the scarecrow trees and the never-ending rows of carriages led by the clip-clopping horses of Central Park. Turn towards the cradle of oversized teddy bears and life-size toy soldiers reminiscent of The Nutcracker, the newly reopened FAO Schwartz on 58th Street, and smile as children bound inside. And look around to see the shimmering facets of modern-day life slowly fade-until your vision blurs to see men striding confidently in top hats and canes as little girls in their Sunday dresses and stockings shriek, trying to catch the newly falling snowflakes on their outstretched tongues.