Tuesday, February 3, 2015

On the Sixth Day of Christmas

...my bestie gave to me,
holiday market shopping.

According to Shana, when the first whiff of Christmas sweeps through the air (sometimes before the first sighting of Santa, bringing up the rear of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade), little holiday markets begin popping up all over the city. I thought perhaps "all over the city" was an exaggeration. But after realizing that we were not passing the same market on our treks across downtown, I understood that they really are everywhere. Each market boasts handcrafted goods and food, all from New York. Artists of all kinds, from chocolatiers to photography featuring the artist's son's stuffed animals, set up shop for the month of December in these markets. Each 10'x10' white canvas tent houses original art and, usually, the artist who can explain the process, answer questions about ingredients and help you choose the perfect gift. December in New York City can be quite unforgiving, with blustery winds and freezing rain or snow, but Shana swears they are out, in the bitter cold and the sunny heat waves, for the entire month.

This is the description (via www.nyctrip.com) given for the Union Square Holiday Market, which was our first stop:

Date: November 20-December 24, 2014
Over 100 merchants are on hand to bring you the most unique gifts available. The Union Square Holiday Market is the place to do your holiday shopping. Some of the items you may find this year include: Hand-blown glass housewares; Local, handmade leather belts; Bags and accessories made from recycled plastic; A variety of handmade jewelry; Gloves, hats, Tibetan crafts and more!
There will also be nibbles and noshes throughout the market. Dig into German delights, both sweet and savory treats. Top things off with a hot apple cider or cappuccino to stay warm. There are so many beautiful things to browse and relish!

Hours: : Monday–Friday 11am-8pm; Saturday 10am-8pm; Sunday 11am-7pm; on December 24 market closes at 4pm
Location: Bryant Park, 40th to 42nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenue

And let me tell you...the smells coming from that German delights tent...holy streusel...
I don't have any pictures of this market because I have a "no photos unless I'm going to buy something" rule when it comes to someone's handcrafted art. (This is an extension of my "no photos unless I'm going to tip the street performer" rule. I have a lot of rules.) And although I did end up buying this fabulous print by EdieArt

by that point, we were rushing out to make a dinner reservation. 
However, the next day, we stopped by the holiday market in Grand Central Station (where, again, I found delectable treats for the babysitting grandmothers back home), and I have these pictures from Shana to share. 

Although the Grand Central Holiday Market is much smaller than the one at Union Square, there was still a wide variety of art and food from which to choose. Scarves, jewelry, paintings, photography, ornaments...it was all unique and very beautiful. 
If you are an artist wanting to purchase a booth for a holiday market, it's not as simple as filling out an application and handing over your check. To keep the number of vendors selling each type of craft balanced (i.e. avoiding a market featuring 20 jewelry designers and 2 blown glass artists), the organization reviews the applications and chooses vendors based on what they sell. Once they are open for business, the artists must pay a portion of their proceeds to the organization and they must meet a sales quota in order to be considered for the next year's market. Basically, it's the commercial version of Darwin. It seems harsh, but I'm sure it works. 

Another aspect of holiday markets that didn't occur to me until after I did a little bit of research this morning, is the possible hypocrisy of it all. According to an article on NY Daily News, artists are outraged that they are kicked out of parks like Union Station for selling during the other 11 months because they aren't paying a permit fee to the city. However, due to the inherent fee structure associated with the holiday markets and the income generated by them for the city's parks department, they are allowed to sell during December. Even when the sprawling design of the market can make for hazardous conditions for residents; spilling over into subway entrances and crosswalks. Like most controversies in the city, I was completely unaware that shopping the holiday markets was angering some artists. (This is like that time I bought a magnet at the 9/11 Museum, unaware that most New Yorkers are livid that there's a gift shop on such hallowed ground. And also like that time when I sat a 6-month old Blue down on a name at the 9/11 Memorial so that I could adjust my shirt, which was riding up and becoming increasingly indecent. If I'm in NY, I'm bound to commit some sort of faux pas surrounding a recent controversy.) Essentially, the artists are proclaiming it's a first amendment violation when they are banned from the park the rest of the year and declaring it a hypocrisy that they are allowed to sell only when the city will benefit from it financially. And this is just like every other government red-tape fiasco I've ever seen. Spoiler alert: the government wins. 

After we finished our shopping at the Grand Central Holiday Market, we paused to take in the scene. I don't think I had ever been in Grand Central Station and it's just as busy as every cliche implies. But there are also plenty of people (surely tourists and residents, alike) who stop to appreciate the architecture, decor and timelessness of such an icon. 

 The zodiac is painted on the ceiling of Grand Central Station. Apparently, it's painted backwards and while some attribute it to an accident, the Vanderbilt family declared it intentional; the constellation was meant to be viewed from a more...divine...perspective.
 Pointing to the clock in the center of the station that looks a lot like our clock at Keeneland!

But even busier than the terminal is the food court and restrooms below. I don't know what it was about this trip but I drank an absurd amount of water and was looking for a bathroom every time we stepped indoors. Shana skipped the bathroom break at Grand Central but swore the stalls were clean and the line moved fast. And she was right! While I was doing my thing, Shana and Neal went in search of lunch. There is no shortage of food vendors in the basement of the terminal, but a tourist "must" is Shake Shack. Even residents will go a little out of their way to stand in line for a cheeseburger and fries from this famous spot. 

Shana was squeezing out some ketchup for our hand-cut fries. One order really was big enough for us to share. And the burger was just as good as it looks. Occasionally, I eat something that I can recall and crave months, or even years, later. I had a Hatch chile cheeseburger with chile cheesefries from a dive in Hatch, NM when Neal deployed out of Ft. Bliss, Texas, 7 years ago. I still think about that meal. Shake Shack is a little like that. 

The only downside to dining in the food court at lunch on a Saturday during the Christmas season is the crowd. And, really, you can't blame anyone for having the same phenomenal idea as you, but know that you may have to throw a couple of elbows at your fellow diners if you want to actually sit while you eat. It's a great place to people-watch while dining. Shana noticed a larger-than-average police presence and later learned of a protest that had taken place upstairs right after we left. (The city was still reeling from the choking death of an unarmed, black man and we passed at least two protests during the weekend.) 

Before we headed out, Shana offered up one more secret of Grand Central Station: the "whispering gallery". If you stand in the corner of a pillar between the Main Concourse and Vanderbilt Hall, and the person you are with stands in the opposite corner, with both of you facing the wall, you can whisper to one another and hear each other clear as a bell. The sound of your voice travels up the pillar, across the ceiling of the 2000 square foot chamber and down to the ears of your companion. As there are 4 pillars, 2 couples can do this simultaneously and I'm here to tell you, it works!
No one knows if this little bit of acoustic magic was constructed on purpose or if it just happens to be a result of curved structures and hard surfaces but it's pretty freaking cool and I encourage everyone who passes through to try it once. Yes, you'll look like a tourist, but everyone is doing it so forget about all that for 2 minutes and have a little fun.
If you want to know a few more quirky facts about one of the most famous terminals in the world, this article on Untappedcities.com gives a "Top 10 Secrets of Grand Central Station" and it's worth a quick read. And if you go to Shake Shack, have a burger and shake for me!


  1. Shake Shack is one of the fastest growing "fast casual" restaurants in the country. There may soon be one near you in Kansas!

  2. Awwww, I love these photos :) There's nothing quite like all those festive little tents, is there. I CAN'T BELIEVE I MISSED THE GERMAN TENT. Sniff. I guess there's always next year.

    Also, I must be the last man on earth who has yet to go to Shake Shack!!


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