A friend recently charmed me with a tale about wrapping up her Center City work day at the Macy’s Christmas Light Show, tipping her weary gaze up toward the enormous sparkling tree, rolling into the waves of sound streaming from the historic Wanamaker organ.
Although I’ve lived in the Philadelphia area for nearly 15 years, I, myself, have never witnessed this spectacle of more than 34,000 lights that has been dazzling viewers for nearly half a century. Nor have I seen the Mummers. I get claustrophobic in crowds and still haven’t recovered from getting stuck, hungover, in the middle of the Puerto Rican Day Parade as I was trying to cross Manhattan one sultry summer morning in 1996.
Needless to say, these intolerances tend to inhibit my enjoyment of the holiday season, especially when compounded by the lack of daylight, conspicuous consumption and insurmountable ideals of family togetherness this time of year brings.
My husband has remarked to me during more than one December that if he were rich, he would buy me an island to inhabit. By myself.
This winter, however, I made an early New Year’s resolution to try harder to embrace the festive mood. And seduced by my friend’s tale of yuletide peace found at the foot of Macy’s glittering tree, I decided late Saturday afternoon that my husband and I should spirit our three children downtown to witness the famous light show and Wanamaker Organ concert.
“Great idea,” Jeff said, surprised by my sudden interest in holiday kitsch, noting that we had just enough time to catch a train from Narberth to Jefferson Station.
Blissfully ignorant about an extended delay and immune to the frigid wind, our kids cavorted on the platform, peering down the tracks to see if the 4:57 was arriving—though it was now well after 5 p.m.—and stopping my heart each time they danced too close to the edge.
“Stay behind the yellow line!” I couldn’t keep from hollering, relieved when the jam-packed train finally pulled in more than 15 minutes late. We only found enough seats together in a “quiet” car, but because it was a Saturday night so close to the holidays, our fellow passengers seemed in high spirits and maybe some of them a little bit drunk — at any rate forgiving of our children’s chirping.
“Are we going to be late?” it finally dawned on our 7-year-old son, Griffin, to ask.
“Are we going over a bridge?” his twin sister, Georgia, wanted to know.
“I can see myself in the window,” Jane, 4, observed. “Scooch me in closer!”
“Come on kids!” Jeff said, grabbing our twins’ hands when we reached Jefferson Station. “We’re gonna make it!”
I scooped up Jane, and we emerged from the stale underground air into the brisk night, charging up Market Street and swooping through Macy’s doors into the crowd.
“Where do we go for the light show?” I asked a security guard who gave me a puzzled look. He must have considered me a dimwit, unschooled in this holiday orgy to which he was forced to bear witness several times a day from Nov. 28 through Dec. 31. But he directed us up.
“The third floor’s my favorite spot,” he said.
I started to wonder if the guard was having a joke at my expense as we crushed onto the escalator behind hefty men, cranky wives, runny-nosed toddlers and pierced teenagers, only to stumble off straight into the women’s lingerie department.
Too late to turn back, we continued to thrust our way through the throng of expectant viewers and racks of bras and underwear, trying to get close enough to the balcony to catch sight of the lights.
“There it is, kids!” I exclaimed to my now drooping children, pointing to a ribbon of red bulbs atop the tree, just visible over the tangle of hats, elbows and hair, hoping that my forced enthusiasm would become infectious.
“These spots are taken,” a woman growled as I tried to nudge our kids closer.
We finally found a corner amongst other people’s parkas and double-strollers when the organ cranked up and an oversized Nutcracker and ballerinas started flickering in time to the music. And we could actually see some of this miracle of LED lights if we tipped our heads back really, really far.
“Wow!” I exclaimed.
“Awesome!” Jeff agreed.
Clearly, my husband and I were more dazzled than our children.
“Scoot in,” I told Georgia, pointing toward an opening at the balcony covered in a sheet of safety plastic.
“I don’t want to,” she said. “I’m too scared.”
I noticed that Jane was paying more attention to the nearby rows of Hello Kitty and Frozen underwear than she was to the spectacle glimmering above her.
“Can we go yet?” Griffin asked, resting his chin on his knee.
But I was not giving up. As reindeers and snowflakes flickered on and off, I inched forward to peer over the railing down at the Wanamaker Grand Organ and into a sea of mesmerized visitors sprawled across Macy’s main floor.
I had to carry Jane through the 17-minute shoving match back down the store’s now stalled three flights of escalator. We nearly lost Griffin in the fray and breathed a collective sigh of relief, and fresh air, once back out in the open on Market Street.
“I’d give it a five,” Griffin said, rating the experience only middling on his scale of one to 10.
“It was just too crowded and hectic for me,” Georgia added. ”I don’t want to go back,” Jane chimed in. “But can we still ride the trains?”
Instead of joining their chorus of complaints, much to my own surprise I realized that I had been bitten by the holiday bug. Next year, we would play it smarter. Next year, I decided we would return on a weekday afternoon and take in the four-story curtain of lights from the ground floor up — whether my kids liked it or not.