A Christmas Carol marathon at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe

I have a lot of love for Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. If you’ve managed to escape me talking too much about my five-year run as a child star in a local production back home—well, feel free to ask me about it. I might even sing for you. But for now I’ll just say, for those five years the time between Halloween and Christmas was Christmas Carol season for me, and in the years since I’ve had to feed my love for the story other ways. Watching A Muppets’ Christmas Carol is one of my favorites (even if it leaves out my beloved Fan, Scrooge’s little sister), but last year I experienced a new favorite: the marathon reading of A Christmas Carol at Housing Works’s bookstore café.

There are so many things I love about this event. It’s at Housing Works’s bookstore café, which is a shop in SoHo where all of the merchandise has been donated, most of the staff is made up of volunteers, and all of their profits go to support the good work done by Housing Works. I’d love the bookstore just for its great space and selection of books, but its mission makes it even better. I’ve already explained my deep love of A Christmas Carol and anything resembling live theater, but I also just love hearing stories read aloud. This event brings all of these things together and has an awesome lineup of guest readers (writers and actors who are listed on the site, as well as some surprises).

Last year the entire café was filled with listeners. There’s a balcony that runs along three sides of the bookstore section of the shop, and the readers stood at one end overlooking the café. I found a window seat and settled in to stay for the whole thing, but people did come and go throughout. It also looks like everything is 10% off during the reading (and that whole weekend)—what a perfect way to shop for the best kind of present (books) and get in the Christmas spirit!

The marathon reading of A Christmas Carol at Housing Works’s bookstore café is on Saturday, December 14, at 1 p.m., but if you show up early you’ll get to hear some members of my choir sing carols beginning at 12 p.m. I sadly won’t be able to make it this year, but having gone last year and stayed all the way to the end of the reading, I highly recommend stopping by—the earlier, the better, to get a good comfy spot to listen from. Buy some hot chocolate and a cookie and settle in to hear one of the best Christmas stories ever written—you won’t be disappointed.

Anyone else have old favorite Christmas traditions that have seen new life lately?

Halloween traditions

If my fall-themed posts didn’t warn you already, I should probably tell you now that I loveHalloween. I used to start planning my costumes months in advance, I threw Halloween gatherings most years in college, and even as an adult I’ve probably carved pumpkins more years than not.

My devotion to costumes has waned in recent years, but I still love the holiday. When I lived in Clinton Hill, I sat on my stoop and handed out candy to the endless crowd of trick-or-treaters parading down Washington Ave. The first year I carved a pumpkin with a cat on it from a pattern, and one little girl was so impressed that I’d carved it “all by yourself!!” Carving must not be as usual here as it is back home.
Last year I was at my apartment on Halloween—my office was shut due to Hurricane Sandy—and while I ventured out and saw the kids’ Halloween parade in Park Slope, I didn’t get any trick-or-treaters at my then-apartment before I headed to a friend’s party. I have higher hopes for my new neighborhood.
My family’s Halloween night traditions include making chili to warm us up before trick-or-treating, and for years after I left for college, the siblings of my neighborhood friends would stop by our house to warm up, drink some cider, and sometimes eat a bit of chili. This weekend I had friends over to celebrate the holiday, and chili and cider were critical items on the menu.
I may not be able to easily pick a pumpkin from a patch in NYC (unless you go out to Queens to check out the Queens Country Farm, which I’ve yet to do), at least not without the hassle of carrying it home on public transportation. I don’t have a good spot to display a jack-o-lantern, and I’ll probably never have a front stoop of my own to decorate with ghosts and cobwebs. But there are some traditions I can continue, or can change to suit my life in New York. They provide continuity between my past and present, and add a beat to the rhythm of each year. As I get older and have fewer markers of time passing, the few I observe become more important.
Any Halloween traditions to share, both old and new?

A donut here, a pumpkin there

I call the part of the state where I grew up “Western New York” because NYC natives call the whole state upstate and might think I mean Westchester. Also I just like Western New York better. If you drive fifteen minutes out of our suburb you start spotting farm markets all over. The area is full of them, which made this weekend—and every October weekend I’ve been at home ever—fun, and more importantly, delicious.

Over the course of a weekend visit I go to four of these farm markets. This is not a record for us—we’re farm market marathoners. The first is a farm that is especially known for its apple cider. We’ve been going there as long as I can remember, and my parents have already been there three times this season. Inside the market there’s a giant cider press where you can watch the apples get peeled and turned into cider while tasting a free sample. My mom and I pick up a gallon of cider, then head over to the bakery section to buy some cinnamon donuts and donut holes.
The next day we hit three markets—two near each other and one on the other side of town. This might sound ambitious, but three farmer’s markets on a weekend day is pretty average for us, and when I lived at home we often went to the markets a few different weekends in October. We’d pick apples one weekend and visit the pumpkin patch another weekend.
This time we start with a large farm market that puts up huge cornstalk teepees every year. The owners carve hundreds of pumpkins and display them inside the teepees. It’s always fun to see what kinds of faces and images they choose to carve, and they’re always skillfully done. One of my favorites this time has a piece of candy corn carved on it, with the pumpkin carved through to represent one color and more lightly scraped to represent the others. We visit the farm’s animals (including burros, a miniature pony, and a free-roaming peacock) before stepping inside the market to pick up some of my favorite sugar cookies.
After devouring two cookies in the car, I’m ready to pick apples across town at another farm. We’ve been picking apples here since I was little, back when filling a half bushel with apples seemed to take forever (and carrying it back to the car was hard work). The store is small and beautifully decorated. It’s filled with jars of preserves and packages of honey, flowers and a glass case with delicious baked goods, and many other things that are fun to pick up and look at. Out behind the store is a barn set up with tables and bushels of apples. It’s used both for informal lunches and special events, from tastings to weddings.
We pick up a half bushel basket and head out to the orchard. When we first started to pick our own apples, years ago, we went with McIntosh apples. Macs are juicy and tart. One season we missed the Macs and the folks at the farm recommended we try Empire apples. We did, and we’ve never looked back. They’re apparently a cross between Macs and Red Delicious (of which I’m not a fan), and while still tart they’re a little sweeter than Macs, a little smaller, and a little firmer. Out in the orchard, there are a few rows of Empires, with some trees picked over and a few still covered with apples. We fill our bushel and take a minute to sample our haul. Perfect.
After apple picking we check out the farm’s selection of pumpkins and choose one suitable for carving. We pay for the apples and pumpkin and drive back toward town. Our last stop is a big farm where we often cut down our Christmas trees. In past Octobers we’d sometimes take a hayride out to their pumpkin patch and pick out our pumpkins there, then explore their massive corn maze, but today we just check out their silly pumpkinhead scarecrows and buy a gourd at their produce stand. Maybe we’ll be back at Thanksgiving for a tree…
My other October weekends are packed, so unfortunately I won’t have much of a chance to look into farm market-like experiences in NYC, something I’ve been meaning to do. The cider (and cider donuts!) at the Fort Greene farmer’s market are pretty stellar all year round, though. Anyone have suggestions of good fall activities right here in NYC?