One of the most beautiful and heart-warming realities about the holiday season is that it carries with it a magic and mysticism that seems to surpass any church wall, temple vestibule, or mosque ground. No matter what religion one practices – if one practices a religion at all – this time of year allows people to somehow stow away their daily stressors (even if only temporarily) to focus instead on doing deeds of goodwill and sharing moments of pure joy.
The whole of society seems miraculously willing and ready to spread kindness and love, just as instinctively as the sun is to radiate warmth and light. It’s an incredible phenomenon that repeats itself year after year as soon as the calendar flips toward its last page. What’s just as incredible – and equally as sad – is that as quickly as the holidays end, mankind reverts to its habits of greed, violence, excess, insolence, and other antics too numerous (and depressing) to list.
Rather than focus on those negative behaviors, let’s enjoy a quick glance at a couple of this region’s trademark, and dare I say delightful, holiday traditions. I believe they show how we, as Northeasterners and as Americans, hold on dearly to our treasured times of togetherness and celebrate that which is important to us when we can. I like to think it says something about our moxie and determination to keep the holiday spirit alive despite challenging times and circumstances – even when the world climate makes that increasingly difficult.
Best holiday traditions?
As this country is the ultimate melting pot – with many of the most eclectic, interesting, intelligent, and creative people converging in New York – it’s an ideal showcase for some of the best holiday traditions in the US of A. That’s a big statement, considering there are 50 fabulous states in this country, stretching from the most northern point of our nation, down the eastern seaboard to the very southernmost point on our map. (Quick geography lesson: That would be in the Florida Keys, where you can get some of the tartest and best Key Lime pie to help celebrate the holidays. I highly recommend Capt. Craig’s Restaurant in Islamorada after personally touring and taste-testing my way through most of Key West and the surrounding keys this past spring – the things I do in pursuit of knowledge! Did you know Key Lime pie was originally made with meringue versus fresh whipped cream atop the custardy lime filling?)
There are, of course, plenty of quirky holiday traditions right here in our area. We have a couple of classic ideas to consider that we think you’ll love!
The lights in New York City
Starting with one of the most well-known and highly publicized holiday events not only in the Northeast or the US but worldwide, may we suggest the annual Christmas tree lighting at Rockefeller Center in NYC? Just like last year’s holiday tree that bedecked the stunning metropolitan area known to many as 30 Rockefeller Plaza, this year’s tree at 30 Rock also came from the town of Vestral. Vestral is located within the more familiar city of Binghamton, which is in the south-central part of New York State.
Donated by the McGinley family, the 80-foot-tall, 43-foot-wide Norway Spruce was cut down on November 9 and then transported more than 200 miles across the state on a flatbed. Two days later it arrived in Manhattan. The tree weighed 12 tons.
Within days of arriving in The Big Apple, the nearly 85-year-old spectacular specimen was adorned with countless Christmas ornaments and illuminated with 50,000 multi-colored, energy-efficient, LED lights, primed to twinkle in the twilight. The lights, if all laid out, would be about five-miles long.
In keeping with tradition, the boughs and branches of the seasonal spruce were soon festooned with festive fandangle, which served as but a mere backdrop for the stellar Swarovski star that shall sit atop the Rockefeller tree throughout the holiday season, bedazzled with three million crystals, featuring 70 sparkly spikes. The nine-foot-four-inch studded star weighs a whopping 900 pounds.
All that bling lit the sky ablaze starting on Wednesday, November 29, when the gigantic spruce was illuminated at 7pm during a live telecast from Rockefeller Plaza. The show included live performances from some of the top names in Hollywood. Christmas in Rockefeller Center is always a free event that’s open to the public – for those who can score a spot; tickets are never required. NBC airs the event nationally to get a jumpstart on the Christmas season; the holiday tree at 30 Rock shall remain on display until January 13, 2024.
Birds of a Feather
The Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center is absolutely a sight to see, and worthy of checking off your holiday bucket list. But there are other activities nearby that will bring you out into nature, where you’ll be surrounded by a heck of a lot more trees, ideally populated with myriad species of birds waiting to be seen, recorded, and counted. Many of those who have an interest in birding, or who live in the Northwest Corner or the Harlem Valley region within close proximity to the Sharon Audubon Center in Connecticut may know where this is headed. Just think for a moment… it’s Christmas time … there’s a call out to birders interested in taking part in a bird count … That’s right – it’s the annual Audubon Center’s Christmas Bird Count! It’s pretty much akin to our US Census Bureau’s Decennial Census of Population and Housing. According to audubon.org, “The Christmas Bird Count occurs December 14 to January 5,” and is among the most ambitious and successful “wings” of the not-for-profit organization’s community science programs.
This is the CBC’s 124th year, making it a long-standing tradition both nationally and here in the Northwest Corner. It’s a 24-hour affair; Sharon’s CBC is scheduled to begin at 12:01am on Sunday, December 18, and to run until midnight. The volunteer birders will meet at The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, CT, which is the center of the counting circle. The count covers a 15-mile diameter stretching across much of northwest Connecticut into Amenia and North East, NY.
Participants should dress warmly and in layers, wear comfortable shoes, and come armed with a good set of binoculars – and it probably isn’t a bad idea to bring along a thermos or two of hot cocoa.
The Trixie Strauss connection
The Sharon count’s formal name is the Trixie Strauss Christmas Bird Count. Strauss was an ardent birder from the area who helped give flight to the CBC when the Sharon Audubon was trying to get the event off the ground. She was also the grandmother of North East town clerk and local artist Tilly Strauss. Hmm… perhaps there are ornithological and genealogical links, in addition to the obvious artistic reasons, as to why Tilly’s paintings of birds are so extremely popular both in person and on social media.
But enough with the mysticism of birds, the sources of Tilly’s talent, and the history behind Sharon’s CBC – the reality is interesting enough. The Audubon began the CBC in 1900, making it the longest-running community science project focused on birds. Within a few decades, the data collected by those citizen counts were being put to good use.
Bird data and its importance
According to the Audubon’s website, “Bird data reported by community scientists have been used by researchers since the 1930s to report on the health of bird populations, and Audubon’s scientists have used those data in creating innovative analytical methods that include our CBC population status and trends and learning how birds are responding to a changing climate.”
Additionally, the Audubon’s national science team works in concert with its conservation strategy leadership to share their knowledge of conservation-relevant science to both state and regional Audubon centers, along with those outside of the Audubon. “We aspire to practice translational ecology whenever possible and believe, through our collective experience, that the best science is produced in collaboration with diverse stakeholders … This science we produce provides a foundation for Audubon’s conservation, advocacy, and engagement work.”
The findings learned through the CBC get recorded and reported back to the conservation organization, to help assess how birds are surviving today’s world. That data is then shared with Audubon Canada, further protecting the future of our feathered friends in North America.
It’s pretty incredible to think that as of the 122nd CBC two years ago, a total of 76,880 birders participated – the fourth highest level of participation on record, according to the Audubon Society – all for an activity that began in response to the early 20th Century Christmas bird hunts that were growing in popularity, decimating bird populations. Clearly, we Americans care about our birds. It’s no secret here in the Harlem Valley and Northwest Corner we likewise get sentimental over our swallows, finicky about our finches, and haughty regarding our hummingbirds.
So, if you would like to don your comfiest of hiking boots and coziest of scarves to help track some of those lovely larks, make sure to register with the Sharon Audubon Center. It’s not essential that participants take part in the full 24 hours of the CBC if that seems too taxing, though it promises to be a fun adventure reminiscent of our younger years when we would camp out under the stars, eat s’mores by the fire, and tell ghost stories. This time, though, no drifting off to dreamland as you must keep your eyes focused skyward – and toward the trees – to make sure you don’t miss your feathered friends. The best of birders are often called “eagle eye,” for their ability to catch sight of an avian in a flash; many are hoping to earn that moniker – a true badge of honor – during this year’s CBC. If you sign up now, you could be among them. •
To contact the Sharon Audubon for more information, or to register, call (860) 354-0520 or go to sharon.audubon.org. The center itself is located at 325 Cornwall Bridge Road, Sharon, CT 06069.