Christmas, Occasionally White, in New York
by Fred Ferretti
At the Met . . . .
It is early on a Friday evening in December, and I am up in the gallery
that surrounds the entry hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at a
small table, warming myself with the contents of a glass and eating pretzels
as I listen to a quintet a few yards away sawing its way gently through
the movements of Arcangelo Corelli's Christmas Concerto. Outside it is
dark and cold. The winter winds of New York City are sailing, unimpeded
as always, across the long expanse of the steps leading into the museum.
Inside, however, up on what has come to be called "The Great Hall Balcony,"
it is pleasant indeed. I am sitting at one of the small tables the museum
sets up each Friday and Saturday evening. All around me many others sit
at the tables — tiny ones, but sufficient to hold perhaps four glasses
as well as the lighted votive candle on each. Below us it is Christmas.
Huge pots overflowing with red poinsettias are outlining the extent of
the Great Hall, its arches and its dome. Straight ahead through the flowers,
along a wide passage — just past the museum's gift shop, where people
are queued to buy silvered and gilded tree ornaments, wrappings and cards
and books, Byzantine jewelry and Venetian glasses — lies the Hall
of Medieval Art, and the tree.
It is, this year, as it is always, a tall blue spruce, perhaps twenty
feet high, and from among its needles lights blink behind the tiny angels
that swing from its branches. Beneath the tree are some of The Metropolitan's
small and lovely rarities, its collection of nativity figures from Naples,
where two centuries ago the practice of displaying in miniature the story
of the birth of Christ gave rise to art. So avid were wealthy Neapolitan
families to crate such Christmas displays that great sculptors of the
time were commissioned to fashion crèches, or presepii, as they
were called: and in the museum's collection are small figures, their heads
and upper torsos exquisitely molded, by Giuseppe Sammartino, Salvatore
di Franco, Giuseppe Gori, and Angelo Viva. Each December these figures,
with bodies of pliable twine, are taken from storage and placed around
The Metropolitan Museum's blue spruce in celebration of Christmas
Each Friday and Saturday evening in December, those evenings when the
museum is open late, the tree is lighted and the presepio comes alive.
Watch it, then walk back out into the Great Hall and through another corridor
lined with Greek and Roman statuary, and you will arrive at the cafeteria.
This, too, is open on Friday and Saturday evenings, and it becomes, with
the addition of a piano player and the softening of its lights, a small
restaurant. I have eaten there a fine plate of maltagliati, those wide
noodles of Friuli, with a heady sauce of stewed duck; I have had thin
slices of prosciutto DI Parma and that air-dried beef of Italy, bresaolo;
and the lamb chops touched with fresh rosemary have not been bad either.
More and more people have come to discover that The Metropolitan Museum
of Art is a fine and gentle place in which to enjoy a weekend evening,
and the museum couldn't be happier, according to its former president,
William Luers. "We have found a new audience. We think that some people
who perhaps might have felt intimidated about going into a museum, any
museum, come here because on Friday and Saturday evenings it is a casual
place, a welcoming place, somewhere to meet your friends, a rendezvous.
And they keep coming."
In the year since it has been open those evenings the museum has clocked
in about four thousand people each Friday and Saturday night, "and we
believe even more will come," Mr. Luers told me before going off to dinner
in his own cafeteria. As an added attraction the museum is now featuring
a series of weekend concerts in many of its galleries.
Me? I like it up in the balcony of the Great Hall, surrounded by pieces
from the museum's Asian collections (blue and white Ming porcelains, bronze
urns and terra-cottas), listening to Beryl Diamond on her violin and the
other musicians who comprise her Orion quintet — second violinist,
cellist, violist, and pianist. This night they have concluded Corelli's
Christmas Concerto and have begun playing Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings
in C Major. Can Bach be far behind, I wonder? I hope not. Yes, I'd love
another drink, thank you. And a few more pretzels.
At the Pierre . . . .
Rarely are there occasions when the season, the weather, and one's personal
circumstance come together felicitously and without seam. Seldom do we
have such happy confluences in New York City these days; thus when one
occurs it becomes a moment to cherish.
So it was several Christmastimes ago. We had planned, as a small and
private holiday, to spend a couple of days at The Pierre Hotel, long a
favorite of ours. A French château extended skyward in granite,
its copper roof green with the patina of sixty-one years, The Pierre stands
just off the southeast corner of Central Park. We thought that a fine
time for our holiday there would be between Christmas and New Year.
"Come on Thursday," Herbert Pliessnig, our friend and then the hotel's
general manager, had urged. "It will snow."
The prospect of snow in New York both pleases and irks. As a native
of the city I have reveled in and abhorred snow with equal fervor —
loved it as it came down, particularly at night, and later in those early
hours when trees and sidewalks, even streets, were white, their hard edges
rounded, and the city glistened; hated it as New York awakened and shoveled
it into heaps, sullied it, crushed it into slush.
Just how Herbert was able to predict that it would snow that Thursday
I did not know, but he is from Austria and presumably knows his way around
a snowflake, so we expected that he ought to be heeded.
We checked in at The Pierre early that Thursday after Christmas and
were elevated to the top of the hotel, to a fine and spacious room, an
aerie know as Room 3903 (4-5). From its windows, a helicopter view, we
looked down at Central Park; at the equestrian statue of William Tecumseh
Sherman, newly gilded, caught in mid-trot in Grand Army Plaza; at Central
Park South and its line of hotels; and up Fifth Avenue. Our room was all
Chinese Chippendale and camelback sofas, Asian porcelains, and an intricately
chiseled marble fireplace. It was a splendid space, with polished sconces,
Chinese carpets, and Austrian shades of heavy brocade.
The flowers were fresh, the Champagne iced, the fruit cold, the table
linens starched. We nibbled on some grapes, then took the elevator back
down to The Pierre's lobby so that we might have tea in The Rotunda. We
sat at one of the small tables opposite the sweeping marble stairways
at one end of the room and enjoyed our pots of hot Darjeeling and buttered
scones as we looked at the enormous Christmas tree that climbed toward
the dome of The Rotunda.
We returned to our room then, and in the evening as we dressed for dinner
we sipped our Champagne. Dinner was in the Café Pierre, where the
hotel's executive chef, Franz Klampfer, cooked us a perfect rack of lamb
crusted with herbs and coarse mustard.
We awakened late the next morning and discovered that Herbert Pliessnig
had been correct. Snow had begun to fall sometime in the middle of the
night and still was floating down. We had our breakfast table brought
to a window and enjoyed our juice, croissants and coffee with the snow.
How white it was, how exquisitely beautiful, and, because there was
no automobile traffic within Central Park that day, the park was a vast
blank rectangle, with the accumulated snow rounding of its rocks and promontories
and softening the banks of its lakes. The band shell, layered in white,
resembled a giant oyster shell, and the fanciful buildings of the Children's
Zoo seemed more than ever like illustrations in a book of nursery rhymes.
On Wollman Memorial Rink skaters moved in long, looping arcs across the
ice, and by Grand Army Plaza carriage drivers draped heavy blankets over
their horses and piled comforters on the laps of customers before nosing
their steeds through the park's drives.
A marvelous morning. Soon the buildup of cross-town and avenue traffic
caused the snow to vanish from the streets, and the shopkeepers along
Madison Avenue pushed walking lanes through the white as they cleared
the sidewalks in front of their boutiques. The city was in gear, albeit
late, and its mantle of snow began to fray. We had expected that, but
we had had a delightful time all the same that day after Christmas, watching
the snow in New York, just as Herbert Pliessnig had said we would.
At Home . . . .
It is also that time of year when I climb to my attic and pull out,
among other cartons, two small boxes, fragile containers of soft cardboard,
the contents of which revive within me, always, a seasonal pleasure. On
each box is a label that reads "Johann Wanner," and in each is a selection
of delicate blown-glass Christmas tree ornaments.
Thin as paper they are, these golden pine cones, silver submarines,
blue mandolins, and red sailboats; these white-speckled red mushrooms,
goldfish, baskets filled with cherubs, and small Santa Clauses of many
colors. And they all come from a shop in the Swiss city of Basel, a store
on the curving road called Spalenberg off the central Marktplatz, in the
city's medieval Alt Stadt.
I bought the ornaments years ago in this shop where it is always Christmas,
from Johann Wanner and his wife, Ursel, who tend their store surrounded
by decorated firs and spruces. Along the shop's walls, on tables, and
under the trees are cabinets and boxes filled with Victorian, and older,
tree ornaments and with newer glass decorations still blown by hand in
Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Poland. It was during a spring visit to Basel
that I found the Wanners and their shop of reflected light. Why not Christmas
shopping in June?
And each December as I suspend the Wanners' ornaments from the branches
of our Christmas tree, I think of the Swiss couple, with cheer.
Table For Two
The other day my wife brought home a glass jar in which rested a ginseng
"Why did you buy ginseng?" I asked.
"To make tea," she replied.
"Why do we want ginseng tea?"
"Ginseng is quite medicinal," she said. "It has healing qualities, and
it increases the body's resistance to adverse influences. So I'm going
to make some tea to help you."
"I don't need any help, and I don't have adverse influences," I said.
"Besides, orange pekoe and Bo Lei work fine."
"You don't need help? Ha!" my wife said. She pulled out a sheet of paper
that had been given to her by the ginseng salesman.
"Listen to this," she said. "It says here that ginseng may increase
your physical and mental efficiency, it may improve the accuracy of work,
it may contribute to one's concentration, and it may also prevent fatigue.
That's what it says."
"None of that applies to me," I said.
"You're always tired," my wife said. "Fatigued."
"Just because I fall asleep when Masterpiece Theatre is on doesn't mean
"You're fatigued," said my wife. "Listen. It says here that ginseng
improves the work of the brain cells, has a good effect on the stomach
and nervous system, and — listen to this — it is good for
skin diseases and is excellent for inducing sleep without any side effect.
That's what the paper says."
"I don't need that. I watch Masterpiece Theatre."
"Stop that," my wife said. "Listen — "
"It says that ginseng has a good effect against arteriosclerosis, diabetes,
heart diseases, and premature aging."
"Ah hah!" I responded. Suddenly I was interested. "Anything else?"
"Says here that it can protect you from radiation."
"Now you're talking."
"Says here that ginseng with pineapple juice is wonderful for indigestion,"
my wife said.
"Let's have tea," I said.
"Good." She smiled.
"But keep some pineapple juice handy."
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