The Magic of a Jersey Kid’s City Christmas

There was a magic to the day, heightened by pretzels. Photo by Kabayanmark Images via Flickr.

For lots of kids, there is an upside to divorce that crystallizes like a snowflake every December. Unlike those with strange, stable families, you get two Christmases. There’s no need to be smug about it, what with the disappointment of a broken family, and yet…

During our ’80s-era childhood, my sister Becky and I celebrated our “main” Christmas with mom in Jersey. Then there was a bonus holiday with our father. Eight years old, I’d watch from the porch of our Long Branch apartment as he emerged from his sleigh (Datsun) with a sack of gifts (Hefty bag). Jolly, he’d dole out kisses, his coal black mustache painting ashy imprints on our cheeks. When he had it together—there are shadows in every divorce story—he’d bring us to Manhattan, which was almost as good as the North Pole.

My father lived in a walk-up Bayonne apartment, where Becky and I sipped OJ from the carton and watch Fraggle Rock as he slept off insomniac nights. Sometimes we would creep out onto the fire escape, the winter air a shock to shirtsleeve skin. When he emerged, he’d insist that we brush our teeth, a bit forcefully, compressing parenting into intermittent weekends. Then it was into the car and through the tunnel.

Amid the chaos of Manhattan Christmas, my father cast wintry spells. We’d stare at the Rockefeller Center tree, which loomed in yuletide confidence. We’d gape at the Fifth Avenue window displays and upscale Santas, their affluence a shock. And always, we’d feast on those pedestrian New York street foods that form culinary imprints, scuffed yet perfect in their way.

There was the dirty-water-dog perfume that hit you from down the block (I always ordered sauerkraut and extra mustard). We’d inhale them and watch the street performers in Washington Square Park. There were knishes that steamed inside waxed-paper squares. Our impatient tongues would get scorched by molten potato as we struggled to match our father’s city pace. After the extravagance of a carriage ride through Central Park, the three of us tucked tight under a Christmas-red blanket, we’d eat hot, salty pretzels and wander past the ice rink, a slick of grease coating our fingers. The warm scent of sugared almonds would encircle us, wafting from trailside carts.

On the luckiest days, we’d visit Hayden Planetarium, where we’d tilt back our seats and ponder the mysteries of a spinning skyscape. Our child minds were trained on flying reindeer and that fat man who proved that one could survive on cookies alone. Our father’s, I imagine, held tight to that pin-prick of gravity that placed us temporarily at the center of the universe. If we whined enough afterward, he’d buy us astronaut ice cream, which collapsed under the teeth at first bite.

En route to the turnpike rest area where he’d return us to our mother, we’d stop at some bright-hot diner, where we dunked French dips but focused on the steak fries. Then, reluctantly, we’d walk back to the car. Our breath painting sugar clouds into cold night air, we savored those last moments of Christmas magic, walking hand-in-mittened-hand.