A New York City Christmas: What that looks like during a pandemic

I wouldn’t call myself a Scrooge, but I guess I’m kind of a Scrooge.

I hate cheesy Christmas songs and any holiday movie that’s described as “heartwarming.” I enjoy Christmas decorations, as long as they lack Santa Claus or snowmen or anything else that should be reserved for children. I like giving gifts, but I hate the anxiety of opening my own and wondering if my smile showed enough appreciation.

But one thing I always looked forward to, for no reason that made sense whatsoever, was visiting New York City to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

Although my distaste for cheesy holiday happenings is only equaled by my hatred of the rotting garbage, dirty subway and gray background of New York City, during one visit every December, I relish in it all.

The endless crowds? No big deal. Holiday music constantly playing? Turn it up.

As a kid, my dad always took my sister and I to see the tree. A comically cheap Italian, he would gladly fork over $100+ to take us on a horse and carriage ride through Central Park and to some iconic city spot to eat, like the The View with its revolving dining room on the 48th floor of the Marriott Marquis with Times Square views. We would also always go see the Rockettes, which honestly was dreadfully boring, but we didn’t have the heart to tell my dad we could skip that part.

These days, one of the handful of times every year this New Jerseyan heads to New York City is to see that tree, no matter how bad it looks that year (which, according to viewer complaints, is every year).

Obviously, the pandemic has given this entire year a run for its money, especially in New York City, which was at times the epicenter of the virus. But as long as I could do it safely with a negative COVID test, pre- and post-visit quarantining, masks and social distancing in place, I hoped for one item on my calendar to be like years’ past, so Mike and I planned to see the tree – and also took advantage of obscenely cheap hotel prices and stayed at the Warwick, a 100-year-old hotel which is only an eight-minute walk from Rockefeller Center.

Rockefeller Center in the era of COVID-19

When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that there would be a ticketing system to see the tree last week and every news site published a story about the new guidelines, I immediately began stalking the Rockefeller Center website to make sure I got my tickets for our planned visit that following Sunday. But day after day soon passed without any sort of way you could reserve a ticket on their site. And then, I checked out the Rockefeller Center Twitter account, which was tweeting at people that you didn’t need a ticket. K.

As I became a Rockefeller Center Christmas pandemic expert, it began to occur to me that de Blasio probably meant the virtual queuing system utilized during busy times for this year – people can scan QR codes throughout the city to get in “line” and then come back to the tree at a designated time – were the “tickets” that so many news sites jumped on. I was right – no advance tickets required.

Arriving to Rockefeller Center on a Sunday around 3 p.m. with our masks firmly in place, we thought we saw a huge line lining up past Radio City Music Hall. Thankfully but not surprisingly, that was the Magnolia Bakery line. Instead, we walked down closed-to-traffic West 49th Street to a bunch of green bubbles painted onto the street, where people waited in line while socially-distanced to get to the tree. With about 7 groups able to view the tree at a given time and a five-minute viewing limit, the line moved swiftly and we probably waited about 15-20 minutes to get to the painted bubbles directly in front of the tree.

Mike and I once we arrived at the socially-distanced ‘bubbles’ at the front of the line to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. We only removed our masks to take this photo, while socially-distanced from others.

Unlike in years’ past, you can’t hang out basically right under the tree this year or in the pavilion where the tree is at all. And you probably don’t want to ask a stranger to take a picture of you either. So your only real option is to take a selfie with the tree afar in the background. If you don’t feel like waiting in line for this, you can also see it from Fifth Avenue.

Thankfully, just about everyone wore a mask walking throughout the city, and, more importantly, wore it correctly. I saw very few people wearing it under their nose (WHY BOTHER????) or not wearing a mask at all.

The crowds on Sunday were absolutely dismal at this Christmas epicenter due to the pandemic. The silence was deafening, and very eerie. A few people dressed as elves danced around to up the spirit a little bit around Rockefeller Center, but that honestly made it weirder.

Other New York City holiday attractions

The view of the tree from Fifth Avenue. I only removed my mask for this photo, while socially distanced from others.

Conversely, the Winter Market at Bryant Park was surprisingly similar as it has been in years’ past, so this isn’t a place I would recommend for safety purposes. The shops appeared about the same distance away from one another as they have always been, making the crowds congested and social distancing impossible. Plus, since lots of the shops offer food and drinks, many people used this as an opportunity to ditch their masks as they meandered about and sipped their apple cider or hot chocolate. 

Read more: Just some chicken to remind you who you are

We always spend some time walking down Fifth Avenue when we come in for the tree, too, but it was sad to see all of the newly vacant storefronts, and the sad excuses for holiday window displays (did they not try because they knew no one was coming?!) Some of the stores too also seemed to be operating at limited hours – for example, the Michael Kors next to Rockefeller Center was strangely closed at 4 p.m. on Sunday.

Usually, we also end up killing some time by checking out cool bars in the vicinity. But that wasn’t easy this time around. As we perused the list of “bars near me” on Google, 85 percent of them said “temporarily closed.” The only one we could find near Bryant Park was Connolly’s Pub, which was your run-of-the-mill Irish pub with (not surprisingly) really overpriced drinks. But DAMN those wings smelled good. (I was saving my appetite for dinner). Which brings me to…

Dining in New York City during the pandemic

The chicken parm pizza from Quality Italian.

After a superb dinner at Quality Meats during our holiday trek to the city last year, we wanted to check out Quality Italian, which was conveniently near our hotel and Rockefeller Center and also had a fun menu with items such as chicken parm pizza (it’s chicken parm… which looks like a pizza), crispy calamari casino, corn crème brulee and filet mignon meatballs.

Read more: Post-pandemic: Does dining out still do it for me?

As a food writer, I’m a self-proclaimed food snob and I usually steer clear of any boring menus, so with lots of items with serious “oooh” factors, I was psyched for Quality Italian… and not disappointed.

We had all of the aforementioned items, as well as Casella’s prosciutto speciale, Porterhouse agnolotti, and tiramisu lucci, and it was all way too much food, but so worth it. Every item was rich and on-point, and with intimate lighting and trendy, rustic touches, it was seriously chic and romantic.

Tiramisu lucci from Quality Italian.

Final takeaways

My annual trip to New York City to see the tree was not like it was in years’ past. It had a line. Crowds were quiet and dismal. Bars were mostly closed, as were some of the iconic stores, and the window displays were truly pitiful.

But, on that note, it also meant an opportunity to support and stay in a beautiful hotel I normally could never afford – in a king suite, at that, for an astonishing $250 including all hotel fees, taxes and overnight parking.

Read more: The empty chef’s table in Central Maine

But in some ways, it was the same, too. It still delivered to me that dose of holiday spirit that I can only find across the Hudson. Despite it all, I think it shows we can continue to enjoy our traditions during the pandemic, but yet in temporarily modified ways to keep life safer for everyone. For example, don’t skip your annual holiday party, but instead, make it a Zoom gathering. A traditional cookie exchange isn’t possible, but maybe an exchange can be set up where you can leave cookies at friends’ front doors. For me, underneath my festive red plaid mask, I couldn’t have been more thrilled to end the year the way I always have – with the person I love near an always-underrated tree.

3 Replies to “A New York City Christmas: What that looks like during a pandemic”

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