A Visit To Macy’s Santaland

Macy's SantalandThis week, in between a visit to the Brazilian consulate to apply for tourism visas, and working on the Gadling family travel gift guide, I decided to make a trip to the North Pole. Or rather, the one on 34th Street, where the most famous department store Santa resides at Macy‘s Santaland. Visions of David Sedaris dancing in my head, I decided if we were going to do this, I might as well do it right. As I walked in the front door of the store (bustling even on a midweek afternoon), I wondered what sort of masochistic experience I was about to put myself through, especially with a person who won’t even remember it. At 17 months of age, my baby Vera is having her first American Christmas, as we spent her first holidays in Istanbul. Now as we are thinking of leaving New York again, I figured she might want to see a little of the magical holiday city that millions of children want to visit every year while it’s still just a subway ride away.

Last year, I took Vera to her first Santa at the annual International Women’s League Holiday Bazaar, held at the once-glamorous Istanbul Hilton. The annual fair is a scrum of expat families bumping elbows for overpriced but hard-to-find in a Muslim country items like Christmas crafts and Italian sausage, but if you are foreign and living in Turkey, you are pretty much obliged to go (I recommend getting some black beans from the Brazilian table, a few bottles of French wine, and hightailing it home). At five months old, she took meeting a strange bearded man like a champ, though it was before the dreaded separation anxiety kicked in, back when I could still use the bathroom by myself. The Noel Baba, aka Santa, she met at the holiday bazaar wasn’t the most authentic, but he beat the skinny Santa we saw in our neighborhood selling Lotto tickets, in a shiny suit and smoking a cigarette. In Turkey (ironically where St. Nicholas comes from), Santa is associated with New Year’s Eve and is almost as ubiquitous as in America during December, but the concept of visiting the man and asking for presents is still thought of as a bit odd.

%Gallery-173473%Fast forward to 2012, when it took me just a few days to get sick of holiday music again, the baby showed only sporadic interest in the seasonal decor rather than childish glee, and we were right in the midst of American materialism in all its festive splendor. After an intense elevator experience involving multiple store employees with walkie talkies, coordinating stroller-only and no stroller cars like parade marshals, we arrived on the eighth floor, official headquarters of Kris Kringle (from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., at least, who knows where he sleeps). Joining the line, one elf informed us, “Only about a half hour!” and judging from the relieved reactions of other parents, I assumed this to be quite short.

This time estimate was about accurate, looking at the time stamp on my photos, but included the diversionary time inside “Santa Land” before we actually saw the big man himself. I discovered this is not just a line to see a man in a red suit, it is an experience. Standing in line was like an anthropological study of Christmas: there was the gaggle of female relatives in town for shopping and holiday sightseeing, the pair of twin baby girls dressed up and looking much more relaxed than their parents about this event, and even a dour-looking couple of German adults behind me with no children. There were local families (playing hooky from school, perhaps) who come every year, bewildered-looking foreign tourists, kids out of their mind with excitement, and babies who just drooled and snoozed. A few minutes after getting in the outer line, we “boarded” the Santaland Express, a sort of life-sized train with a big bell on front, which each child seemed delighted to ring loudly, making me wonder how often the outer line elves got headaches.

Then we were inside Santaland itself, a wonderland of lights and animatronics, which was alternating thrilling and terrifying to small children. I won’t spoil it all – it really is an experience one should do once, especially with children – but the highlights for me were a huge Christmas tree with model trains circling and a large map of Santa’s route (I like tracking him online on the NORAD website). My baby loved the dancing bears and skiing penguins, but a sense of foreboding grew over us as we inched closer to the main event. Various elves tried to prep us for seeing Santa, even shooting some practice shots along the Santaland landscape. Spoiler alert: I think there might be more than one Santa, though the process of being ushered into Santa’s lodge is well-choreographed enough so you can ignore all the identical lodges and sounds of photos being snapped. We watched a family in front of us with an 8-month-old baby – still happy to play along with his parents’ excitement to take pictures of him with a stranger – and I made a note to drag my husband along next time to help wrangle and document the process. Vera began reacting like a cartoon dog going to the vet, whimpering and pawing at me, desperate to not be put on the lap of this man. Despite the best efforts of the high-quality Santa and elf photographer, we couldn’t get a happy shot.

A few minutes and $20 later, we had our official 2012 Santaland portrait (I opted for no photo mugs this year). “Don’t you like any of them?” a concerned elf asked as I slowly looked through the contact sheet. “Oh no, they are awesome! Every child needs their first crying-with-Santa photo!” I replied. I was proud that Vera had now entered the pantheon of scared of Santa photos, a proud tradition all over the world for many generations. I’m not sure I’ll return in Christmases future if I don’t live in NYC, but I’ll proudly wear my “Santaland 2012″ pin, at least until December 24.

Macy’s Santaland Herald Square is open every day 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. until Christmas Eve, December 24. Download the Macy’s app to book an “express” visit to Santa.

[Photo credits: Meg Nesterov]

Eynhallow: Visiting Orkney’s Haunted Isle

Eynhallow
Orkney is an ancient land where prehistoric monuments still dominate the landscape, along with the wide sky and surrounding sea. Plenty of strange stories have grown up about certain places. Some of the strangest have to do with a little island called Eynhallow.

Eynhallow has been deserted since 1851. Considering that it’s a little less than 200 acres of treeless grass and rocky cliffs surrounded by dangerously strong tides, it’s a testament to Orcadian toughness that it was ever inhabited at all.

For a long time, the stories say, it wasn’t inhabited by people, but by the Finfolk. The Finfolk were a race of magical beings who in the summer lived on the island, which was then called Hildaland. This island itself was magical and was usually invisible to mortal eyes.

The Finfolk were evil beings and sometimes abducted people, much like the elves of European folklore before fantasy writers turned them into metrosexuals. One day a Finman abducted the wife of the Goodman of Thorodale, an Orcadian farmer. Thorodale saw a tall, dark figure making off with his screaming wife in a boat. The brave farmer rowed after them and the Finman turned his boat invisible and escaped. Thorodale grieved for his wife until one day he heard her voice singing to him over the waves, telling him to visit a wise woman on the island of Hoy. This woman told him how to get his wife back and kick the Finfolk off Hildaland. The rest of the tale is told here.

Hildaland, after it was rid of its pesky Finfolk, became known as Eynhallow, a corruption of the Norse word for “Holy Island.” Fanciful folktales aside, there may have been a reason for this. Some believe that a monastery once operated on the island and this is why the Vikings called it a Holy Island.

%Gallery-161239%This seems to have been confirmed when a medieval church was discovered on the island. It had been lived in and built around by the last nineteenth-century residents until disease killed many of them and the rest fled. It was only after it was abandoned that scholars realized what it was. The church building may, or may not, have served a monastery. No excavations have yet taken place. But why would a sizable church and perhaps a monastic community have been built on such a small island, only to be ignored by medieval chroniclers and completely forgotten?

I visited on an annual trip hosted by the Orkney Archaeology Society, a friendly group of professional and amateur archaeologists who love the land and its past. They wanted to explore the mysterious church building. This wasn’t a simple outing to an uninhabited island. Two visitors supposedly disappeared on a trip there in 1990. Some say the ferrymen bringing the group there and back simply miscounted; others say it may have been vengeful Finfolk.

Orcadian folklore hints that the island is still magic. It’s said that if you cut grain there after sundown, it will bleed, and a horse tethered to the ground will always be found running loose after dark.

We set out across the chilly gray water at 7:30 p.m., which in the Orkney summer means it’s still bright enough to read outside. We passed between the islands of Mainland and Rousay and one of the group members pointed out several medieval brochs on either shore.

After about 20 minutes, Eynhallow appeared before us as a green hump in the sea. There’s no pier on Eynhallow, so the ferry ground to a halt on a rocky beach, upsetting hundreds of terns that flapped and squawked at us. Soon we were tromping down the beach. The ferry had some other runs to make so it pulled away with a scrape of steel on stone and chugged off. We were temporarily marooned on an island inhabited only by malevolent spirits. I love my job.

After we left the angry terns behind, all we could hear was the wind. We headed inland across thick grass and wildflowers to reach the mysterious church. It’s a strange building and I can see why the archaeologists are puzzled by it. Parts are skillfully made, while others looked slapped together, probably by the later farmers. A staircase leads up to nowhere and debris and lumps in the earth suggest a series of outbuilding that may have been the monastery. From what can be seen, it certainly looks like a planned community built at once, with the later farmers’ additions put on every which way.

It’s a lonely place now. Grass and nettles have overgrown the site and birds have built nests in holes in the walls. As we explored, one of the group, a singer at a local church, stood in the nave and sang in Latin in a deep, resonant voice. The effect was eerily beautiful.

After puzzling over the church, we headed out to circumnavigate the island. Now, it was about 9 but this far north it meant we had a good two hours of twilight left. The increasing gloom only enriched the colors – the deep green of the grass sparkled with lighter shades of wildflowers, the pale blue of the sky, the endless gray of the ocean. The shore had brighter hues. Red cliffs studded with tufts of wildflowers housed nests for raucous birds. Fulmars, cormorants and puffins were everywhere. Angry mothers guarded their chicks by flapping their wings and squawking at us. They must have been warned by the terns.

The natural beauty continued all around the island. Waves lashed against the jagged rocks and birds studied us from sheer cliffs. As we made our way around we came across several cairns. Some were guide markers for fishermen, while others may have been ancient. A flock of sheep came out of nowhere and passed on by with barely a look at us intruders. We rounded a bend and humped over a hill and there ahead of us shone the lights of the ferry. It had come back for us.

I almost felt sorry.

For more on Eynhallow, check out Orkneyjar’s excellent collection of Eynhallow pages.

Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “Beauty In Wartime: The Italian Chapel In Orkney!”