What are the holidays without an extra cup of holiday cheer? Whether you’re throwing a holiday party or just looking to make a weeknight more bearable, everyone should have a few seasonal cocktails in their arsenal. So we hit up some of New York’s best bars to ask their advice for enticing drinks that you can make at home with just a trip to a decent liquor store and the local bodega.
Whether you want to brace yourself for that family dinner, finally convince your brother that you know what you’re doing behind the bar, or sip something boozy alone after the party while mainlining Hallmark movies and weeping, we’ve got you covered. And if the season has you too wiped out to make anything, we’re also letting you know where you can go to try out one of these creations. Or four. We’re not judging.
To Loosen Everyone Up Before Dinner (and After the Election)
Carroll Gardens spot August Laura (387 Court Street, Brooklyn), owned by couple Alyssa Sartor and Frankie Rodriquez, pays tribute to the neighborhood’s Italian roots. The bar focuses almost entirely on Italian spirits, and is named after Sartor’s grandfather, who grew up a few blocks away.
This drink makes use of Cynar, an Italian amaro made from artichokes. The cocktail is herbal, with winter apple and cinnamon flavors, and packs a bit of burn from the ginger beer. Since Cynar is liqueur, this is a low-alcohol cocktail; if you think you need a bigger buzz, you can switch it out for Cynar 70 proof, which packs more of a punch.
Instead of (Oh, Who Are We Kidding, With) Dessert
Before Greg Boehm opened up Mace (649 East 9th Street, Manhattan, macenewyork.com), a cocktail bar in Alphabet City that serves well-crafted tipples designed around spices, his mother suggested he use the space for a temporary Christmas-themed bar. Now entering its third year, Miracle is packed nightly with drinkers seeking a little extra holiday cheer, and has spawned a franchise this year — bars around the world, including The Trap in Athens and Danico in Paris, are serving the libations created by head bartender Nico de Soto.
An annual favorite is the Yippie Ki Yay MF, a tribute to both Die Hard and the classic mai tai. De Soto’s take is rum-heavy, but with the twist of a pumpkin-orgeat syrup that will remind you of holiday pie. It’s served in a retro holiday mug shaped like Santa’s pants, and then a giant mint bunch is dusted with powdered sugar to look like a Christmas tree in the snow.
The mug is a showstopper, so if you really want to go all out for your holiday dinner, stop by the bar and buy some for $12 apiece.
A Boozy Drink for Sipping Alone
Matt Piacentini, the owner of the Up & Up in Greenwich Village (116 MacDougal Street, Manhattan, upandupnyc.com), created this cocktail to show off local New York spirits at the Reykjavík Bar Summit, and liked it so much that it earned a spot on his menu. The central ingredient is Mr. Katz’s Rock & Rye, a rye whiskey made with rock candy sugar, sour cherries, cinnamon, and citrus. Piacentini combines it with an un-aged brandy to provide a kick, as well as with Atsby Amberthorn vermouth, made on Long Island. The result “has all the cliché winter things you want in a cocktail, but in a bar-snob acceptable cocktail,” Piacentini says of the drink’s apple and warming spice notes.
The locally sourced spirits can be a bit tricky to find, but large liquor stores like Astor Wine & Spirits should have the ingredients in stock — or be able to suggest workable substitutes. Piacentini adds that it’s easy to batch and bottle a few of these before a party, so all that’s left to do is pour over ice and stir before serving. If you bottle ahead, he suggests adding lemon oil extracted from the peel both before bottling and again when serving.
To Warm Up With a Booze Sweater
Once one or two people order this drink, which smells like a fresh-baked spice cookie, much of the bar follows suit, says Nino Cirabisi, owner of the Lower East Side’s Bonnie Vee (17 Stanton Street, Manhattan, bonnievee.com). Cirabisi created his take on the classic hot buttered rum cocktail to taste like ginger snap cookies, one of his holiday favorites. Vanilla, dark brown sugar, and nutty amaretto give the drink a baked-Christmas-treat flavor.
The bulk of the effort in making this drink is on the front end, mixing up the butter, so it’s easy to make for a party — just add boiling water at the last minute. Or whip up a larger batch ahead of time and keep it warm in a crockpot, then let people serve themselves.
You can experiment with the base spirits for the drink depending on your taste. Dark rum has molasses notes that work well for those who like things rich and sweet, but spiced rum or rye whiskey can be substituted to make for a spicier, drier drink.
A Fancy-Pants Sparkling New Year’s Eve Toast
If you want to go more elaborate than a simple glass of bubbly this New Year’s, try this creation from Moses Laboy, the bar director at midtown bar and restaurant Bottle & Bine (1085 Second Avenue, Manhattan, bottleandbine.com). Laboy says he hoped to “satisfy as many palates as possible” with this Champagne-cocktail-inspired aperitif, which is refreshing rather than cloying. (No need to shell out money for expensive Champagne — a cheaper sparkling wine works just fine here.)
Blow Your Friends Away With Your Cocktail Wizardry
Garret Richard, a bartender at Slowly Shirley (121 West 10th Street, Manhattan, slowlyshirley.com), was inspired to make this cocktail using the Jamaican beverage sorrel, a drink made from hibiscus (known as “sorrel” in the Caribbean and no relation to the herb sorrel) that is popular around the holidays. The result, an intense, deep red libation, gets most of its flavors from homemade infusions, so for the home bartender it makes sense to go ahead and make an entire punch bowl so the whole party can benefit from your labor of love. This will take some time and effort, but think how much bragging you’ll get out of it.
Reach for your iPhones and pocketbooks — we’ve got your New Year’s Eve planned, from Casablanca to down-with-2016 revelry.
BangOn!NYC: Time & Space
Brooklyn location TBA, 9 p.m.
Inside a massive, secret warehouse space (revealed once you buy tickets), you’ll enter 2017 through outer space, surrounded by a gigantic solar-system installation and other intergalactic experiences: fire-breathers, aerialists, art installations, and food vendors. And, of course, lots and lots of DJs, including Thomas Jack, The Him, Dimond Saints, and Loosid. If you prefer your parties quiet, there will also be a silent disco. — Mary Bakija
Dances of Vice: Parisian Follies
Grand Prospect Hall, 8 p.m.
For those who’ll settle for nothing less than decadence, Shien Lee’s entertainment troupe Dances of Vice never fails to go all out, and then some. Their annual New Year’s Eve party is this year called “Parisian Follies,” a tribute to the notorious cabarets of France (the Folies Bergère, Moulin Rouge, and Casino de Paris) as well as a celebration of Paris’s golden age (from the 1890s through the 1920s Années Folles). Dress in your best and enjoy a “Grande Spectacle” of burlesque, opera, vaudeville, and, of course, cancan dancers. Guests can summon the green fairy with absinthe in a re-creation of Montmartre nightclub Le Chat Noir, or opt for dinner with a buffet of French cuisine. — Heather Baysa
263 Prospect Avenue, Brooklyn, dancesofvice.com, $75+
Brooklyn Bazaar, 9 p.m.
You know what to do. John Oliver knows what to do. We all know what to do. “F#CK 2016” promises a fitting good riddance to a year that destroyed everything in its path. Bring your lousiest memory from 2016 to the Brooklyn Bazaar, write it down, and shred it with the confetti maker; the results will be blasted sky-high at midnight. Frolic across three floors of fun with musical performances by Titus Andronicus, High Waisted, and Toys in Trouble. Take the opportunity to retreat into childhood on the seesaw and in the ridiculously fun ball pit. And toast complimentary midnight Champagne to wash away the bad taste of 2016. — Heather Baysa
150 Greenpoint Avenue, Brooklyn, bkbazaar.com, $40+
House of Yes, 10 p.m.
There’s no better way to say sayonara to 2016 than by envisioning the future — the new-and-improved future you, specifically. At House of Yes’s “Future Perfect” gala, the eclectic Bushwick performance venue invites guests to “adorn your flesh to fit your perfected future self,” which is artist-speak for reinvention through dressing up and partying. Throughout the location’s three rooms you’ll find DJs, energy cleansing, an elixir bar (and open bar), illicit-activity-friendly hidden spaces, and a night-capping “Midnight Moment of Manifesting Excellence.” Not sure what that means? Let future you find out. — Jill Menze
2 Wyckoff Avenue, Brooklyn, houseofyes.org, $50–$90
Great Gatsby Cruise
Pier 36, 9 p.m.
Imagine a modern-day Jay Gatsby who, instead of throwing lavish house parties on Long Island, hosts a booze cruise and spins Top 40 and EDM on the Hudson. If the combo sounds appealing, look no further than this Great Gatsby–themed New Year’s Eve cruise, which sets sail from Pier 36. Dapper guests in Roaring Twenties attire will enjoy an open bar, unlimited food, electronic tunes, and a special view of both the ball drop and Statue of Liberty–adjacent fireworks. Last year the event sold out, so don’t let the dust settle on your top hat for too long. — Jill Menze
299 South Street, Manhattan, greatgatsbynewyears.bpt.me, $165
The Bell House, 10 p.m.
Monthly dance party the Rub happens to fall on New Year’s Eve this month, which means the Bell House blowout will be one for the books. At almost fifteen years and going strong, the Rub is still drawing mobs of sweaty dancing fools looking to get down to a slick mix of hip-hop, funk, and soul. Join DJ Ayres and DJ Eleven plus special guests as they close out 2016 in style. The ticket price includes a Champagne toast at midnight. — Jill Menze
149 7th Street, Brooklyn, 718-643-6510, thebellhouseny.com, $60
Ukrainian Institute of America, 9 p.m.
In a hedonistic city on a hedonistic night, there is good news for altruists: It is possible to party charitably. The Ukrainian Institute’s New Year’s Eve celebration benefits the preservation of the institute’s home, the Fletcher-Sinclair mansion on Fifth Avenue. Built just before the turn of the twentieth century, the building — a National Historical Landmark — will be transformed into a Twenties-themed speakeasy for the night, complete with open bar, hors d’oeuvre buffet, and midnight Champagne toast. Make sure to stop by the in-house exhibition on the Ukrainian Constructivist Alexander Archipenko for a peek at the Twenties from another perspective. — Pac Pobric
2 East 79th Street, Manhattan, 212-288-8660, ukrainianinstitute.org, $125–$150
World of Wonder
Brooklyn Winery, 9 p.m.
One of Williamsburg’s finest wine bars will transform into a fantastical “World of Wonder” this New Year’s Eve. For $150, this Brooklyn Winery event will give you access to a four-and-a-half-hour open bar (serving the winery’s own wine, top-shelf liquor, beer, and specialty cocktails — plus a Champagne toast!) as well as hors d’oeuvres, dancing, and a custom photo booth. Designed in collaboration with G! Designs, Rebecca Shepherd, and Rose Red and Lavender, the mystic-forest-themed wonderland is sure to rack up those Instagram likes. — Jill Menze
213 North 8th Street, Brooklyn, 347-763-1506, store.bkwinery.com, $150
Film Forum, 7 and 9:10 p.m.
New Year’s Eve is a time for glitz and glamour, and nothing shines quite like the golden age of Hollywood. Casablanca turns 75 this year, so celebrate its diamond anniversary with Rick, Ilsa, Sam, Louis, and everyone out in the desert. Here is a melodrama that never gets old, and the accidental nature of the film’s success — it was unknown until the final day of production whether Humphrey Bogart’s and Ingrid Bergman’s characters would end up together — demands an extra layer of appreciation. Round up the usual suspects and see it again tonight with a free glass of bubbly at these evening shows. Here’s looking at you, 2016. — Heather Baysa
209 West Houston Street, Manhattan, 212-727-8110, filmforum.org, $8–$14
Museum of the Moving Image, 1 p.m.
Happy Hour’s five-hour-plus running time will obviously concern some, but Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s rewarding, understated drama uses its length to extend sympathetic attention in every direction. The film focuses on four middle-aged female friends and their professional and romantic commitments, often depicted in mundane settings: restaurants, bars, living rooms, book talks, spa trips, and even an extended “energy focus” workshop. Following in the tradition of the everyday dramas of filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu and Hirokazu Kore-eda, Hamaguchi allows conversations to play out in real time, blurring character thoughts and philosophical musings (in a mode similar to Richard Linklater) and allowing antagonistic characters to reveal their good intentions. — Peter Labuza
36-01 35th Avenue, Queens, 718-777-6888, movingimage.us, $15
Nitehawk Cinema, 11 a.m.
Generally derided upon its release and never exactly reclaimed in the two and a half decades since, Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991) is primed for reappraisal. This Peter Pan–grows-up tale fulfills both sides of its ripe conceit, anchored at one end by some of the director’s most visually imaginative sequences — its action particularly impresses — and at the other by a touching emotional resonance. The parent-child scenes, for one, have no business being this observant in a big-scale blockbuster. But Hook has always been first and foremost a showcase for the inimitable talents of the late Robin Williams, who perfectly captures the once-displaced, now-revived character’s senses of resignation and rediscovery. — Nick Newman
136 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-782-8370, nitehawkcinema.com, $12
Museum of the Moving Image, 4:30 p.m.
If you take nothing else away from The Lobster, you will still have seen what is perhaps cinema’s all-time funniest shin-kick: It’s from Colin Farrell, aimed at a little girl, and somehow totally justified by the plot, which as you might’ve read involves a society where uncoupled adults, wholly valueless, are literally put out to pasture. The kick is also pretty much the least sadistic example of shocking nastiness in The Lobster, or indeed in the work to date of Yorgos Lanthimos, whose Dogtooth likewise trafficked in maxillofacial trauma. Lobster presents yet further evidence of the director as master of his own sui generis parallel universes — it’s not hard to imagine a cult following forming as we speak — even if its ending couldn’t be more Greek. Pretend it’s not on Amazon and catch it here; you’ll need the fresh air to clear your head after. — Mike Laws
36-01 35th Avenue, Queens, 718-777-6888, movingimage.us, $15
When Harry Met Sally...
Nitehawk Cinema, 11:30 a.m.
It’s almost 2017, and Nora Ephron’s infamous question has been answered again and again — of course a man and a woman can just be friends, if they both want to. But let’s say you’re lonely on New Year’s Eve day, roaming around Central Park by yourself. Go ahead, have what she’s having. Take the opportunity to remember all the things you love about When Harry Met Sally this December 31 at Nitehawk. Grab a friend, or a “friend,” and steel yourself for the night of debauchery ahead with the food and drink specials on offer at this brunchtime screening. — Heather Baysa
136 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-782-8370, nitehawkcinema.com, $12
FOOD & DRINK
Cienfuegos + Mother of Pearl
9 p.m.–2 a.m.
To kick off 2017 in rum-friendly fashion, head to the East Village for a joint party by tiki spot Mother of Pearl and its upstairs neighbor, the Cuban-inspired Cienfuegos. The party will encompass both bars, with each passing around appetizers that fit its theme. (Bonus for herbivores: Mother of Pearl has an all-vegan menu.) The open bar will also include beer and wine, along with a Champagne toast at midnight. If you want to end the year feeling tropical but can’t swing the plane ticket, this is your party. — Alicia Kennedy
5 p.m.–2 a.m.
Greenwich Village landmark Dante has been in business since 1915, always operating with an Italian flair. In 2015, it was handed over to Australian owners, but it’s remained true to its origins, famously serving an incredible list of Negroni variations. This year, the bar was named to 2016’s “World’s 50 Best Bars” list, so one can expect its New Year’s Eve bash will be both delicious and fun. The $85 sit-down menu — expect truffles and decadent seafood dishes — includes a welcome cocktail and a midnight toast. — Alicia Kennedy
79-81 MacDougal Street, Manhattan, 212-982-5275, dante-nyc.com, $85+
9:30 p.m.–3 a.m.
You might know Tribeca bar and restaurant Distilled for its complimentary popcorn, served with a delicious sprinkling of what it calls “magic dust.” The menu there also offers pub fare and an extensive roster of meaty and vegetarian-friendly American food. On New Year’s Eve, you can sample these signature dishes on an unlimited basis, along with an open bar until 1 a.m. There will be a midnight toast, music, and party favors, plus live projection of the ball drop. — Alicia Kennedy
Distilled, 211 West Broadway, Manhattan, 212-601-9514, distilledny.com, $125+
7 p.m.–12 a.m.
Turn your New Year’s Eve into a bona fide fiesta at Alex Stupak’s notoriously fun and experimental Empellón restaurants, which excel at modern Mexican. The flagship West Village taqueria will host two six-course taco tastings (the earlier seating is $95; the later, with Champagne toast, is $135), where you’ll find things like wagyu beef in black-pepper mole and lobster slicked with sea urchin butter tucked inside fresh warm corn tortillas. You can also reserve the intimate chef’s counter at Empellón Cocina in the East Village, where Stupak and his cohorts will concoct an impressive multi-course tasting menu befitting the special occasion. — Zachary Feldman
230 West 4th Street (212-367-0999) and 105 First Avenue (212-780-0999), Manhattan, empellon.com, $95+
5:30 p.m.–2 a.m.
Party in style at Sara Conklin’s industrial-chic Israeli restaurant, Glasserie, set inside a former glassworks on the outskirts of Greenpoint. Until 7:30, celebrate with a selection from chef Eldad Shem Tov’s à la carte menu of modern Mediterranean cooking, which leans toward the experimental with dishes like shredded rabbit tacos and a flaming fish meatball. After 7:30, Shem Tov and his crew will put together a $90 five-course prix fixe meal (with Champagne toast) that includes local fish crudo and dry-aged steak. Sweeten your new year with orange-blossom doughnuts and rose-scented custard while jamming out to live music, which kicks off at ten and continues till late. — Zachary Feldman
95 Commercial Street, Brooklyn, 718-389-0640, glasserienyc.com, $90+
The Rainbow Room
8:30 p.m.–1:30 a.m.
Ring in 2017 sixty-five floors above midtown at New York City’s Rainbow Room, where guests can get down to live music on the landmarked dancefloor. Tuck into canapés and enjoy a four-course prix fixe meal while surrounded by ornate crystal curtains in the historic, cavernous dining room; the temptations include big-ticket items like lobster salad and dry-aged beef, all topped off by a Champagne toast at midnight. The $595 blowout is a black-tie affair; if you’d prefer a less formal celebration, the Rainbow Room’s Bar SixtyFive will host a Champagne and caviar soirée for a relative “bargain” at $295. — Zachary Feldman
30 Rockefeller Plaza, 65th floor, Manhattan, 212-632-5000, rainbowroom.com, $295+
5 p.m.–2 a.m.
At this spacious Lower East Side neo-bistro, Branden McRill, Patrick Cappiello, and chef Daniel Eddy will kick off their New Year’s celebrations with a slew of prix fixe options, starting with a perfectly reasonable $65 three-course meal featuring the same kind of stylish and well-composed French fare that’s made the restaurant a destination for Francophilic oenophiles. Enjoy live jazz with your dinner or find someone to make music with at the $95 open bar, which begins at midnight. In addition to tony fare like scallops with ginger cream and roast duck with white beans, pastry chef Morgan Reeds’s sweets — including bay leaf panna cotta — are appropriately festive. — Zachary Feldman
218 Bowery, Manhattan, 917-639-3880, rebellenyc.com, $65+
7 p.m.–1 a.m.
At Virginia’s, a cozy and posh East Village respite encased in white brick, chef Matt Conroy weaves together greenmarket ingredients into smart and playful New American dishes like charred sweet potatoes with horseradish and blue cheese. He’s devised a $95 New Year’s Eve menu to mark the occasion, featuring six courses of luxe ingredients like Kumamoto oysters (under cucumber ice and shiso leaves), bay scallops (with capers and citrus), and suckling pig (next to apples, cabbage, and pickled mustard seeds). Consider your lily gilded with supplements that include a black-truffle celery root velouté and a “surf and turf” of short rib and lobster in fingerling potato purée. — Zachary Feldman
647 East 11th Street, Manhattan, 212-658-0182, virginiasnyc.com, $95+
9 p.m.–2 a.m.
Nestled high above Williamsburg on the 22nd floor of the towering William Vale hotel, Westlight, Brooklyn’s hottest new rooftop bar, is hosting a New Year’s Eve bash (starting at $225) with an open bar featuring specialty cocktails like “The Crusher,” a spiced and fruity mixture of gin, amaro Nonino, elderflower liqueur, blueberry, and lemon. In addition to a Champagne toast at midnight, expect passed canapés from chef Andrew Carmellini, who’s in charge of all the food at this modern luxury hotel known for its killer views. If Westlight’s bar menu is any indication, you can expect to nosh on everything from duck carnitas tacos to crispy potato skins decked with caviar to kale spring rolls. — Zachary Feldman
111 North 12th Street, Brooklyn, 718-307-7100, westlightnyc.com, $225+
Barbès, 10 p.m.
Expect one of the evening’s more joyfully intimate celebrations to break out in the cozy back room of this Park Slope boîte, as the Anbessa Orchestra tears through hits from Ethiopian music’s late-Sixties/early-Seventies golden age. Anbessa are led by guitarist-composer Nadav Peled, inspired by producer Francis Falceto’s ongoing Éthiopiques series of CD compilations, and named after the magisterial lion of Amharic culture. The seven-piece outfit deploys rolling grooves and funky horns in songs like Assefa Abate’s “Yematibela Wef,” adds twangy surf guitar to Ali Mohammed Birra’s “Nagatti Si Jedha,” and more than credibly expands the template with remarkably faithful originals. — Richard Gehr
376 9th Street, Brooklyn, 347-422-0248, barbesbrooklyn.com, $20
The Bad Plus
The Village Vanguard, 9 and 11 p.m.
This trio — bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson, and drummer Dave King — famously broke the “rock” barrier at this club fourteen years ago by covering the likes of Blondie, Nirvana, and Black Sabbath. They’ve also been dependably jubilant New Year’s Eve regulars since 2008. After concentrating on original material for their past few albums, the Bad Plus returned to their conceptual roots with this year’s It’s Hard, a refreshingly perverse all-covers collection that has the group bopping all the way from Ornette and saxophonist-composer Bill McHenry to Johnny Cash, Kraftwerk, and Prince, all while remaining as witty and idiosyncratic as ever. — Richard Gehr
178 Seventh Avenue South, 212-255-4037, villagevanguard.com, $150
Brooklyn Bowl, 8:30 p.m.
Composer and saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s three-part The Epic, released last year on Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder label, lives up to its name with nearly three hours of impeccably arranged jazz certain to move aficionados and skeptics alike. And move is the key word: Layered with nods to soul and funk, Washington’s music has all the thrust needed to get you out on the dancefloor at Brooklyn Bowl (or, at least, shimmying down its lanes). Whatever your New Year’s Eve plans for the rest of the evening, start the night with Washington and opener the Budos Band — it’s gonna be epic, man. — Hannah Stamler
61 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-963-3369, brooklynbowl.com, $65–$75
Marc Ribot Trio
Issue Project Room, 10 p.m.
Marc Ribot has quite the endearingly eclectic c.v. On more than twenty albums, he has nimbly moved between avant-garde and jazz circles; his deft, flexible guitar work can be heard on tracks by Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, John Lurie, and John Zorn. He’ll ring in 2017 at Issue Project Room with bassist Henry Grimes — who played with free-jazz giant Albert Ayler many moons ago — and drummer Chad Taylor. If it’s anything like the trio’s excellent 2014 album, Live at the Village Vanguard, you’ll be treated to a mix of standards and Ayler tunes revived, reinterpreted, and remade. — Tanner Tafelski
22 Boerum Place, Brooklyn, 718-330-0313, issueprojectroom.org, $30
Madison Square Garden, 7:30 p.m.
The band completes a four-night run in this big, bouncing room with its 39th show — and 10th New Year’s Eve showcase — at what has become its de facto home away from home. Last year, the quartet began the third night of its MSG residency with a long, undulating, electronics-enhanced jam from within a tall, luminous hourglass across the arena floor from the stage. They eventually returned to their proper place for another hour’s worth of space-rock, dad-rock, prog-rock, “Auld Lang Syne,” and the constantly searching, uniquely off-register neoclassical rock they’ve been honing for more than four presidential administrations. — Richard Gehr
4 Pennsylvania Plaza, 212-465-6741, thegarden.com, $75–$90
Irving Plaza, 8 p.m. and 1 a.m.
Brooklynites by way of the University of North Texas jazz program, this ceaselessly hustling and ever-evolving little big band reclaims the regrettably abandoned territory where sophisticated jazz meets funky dance music. Led by composer-bassist Michael League, Snarky Puppy dazzle without a lot of obtrusive razzle. As heard on the group’s recent Culcha Vulcha, League keeps things taut yet grooving with propulsive percussion, playfully polyester analog synth lines, snazzy horn charts, and the occasional Brazilian tinge. Catch them here as either a classy prelude to year-end hoopla or an after-midnight bacchanal. — Richard Gehr
17 Irving Place, 212-777-6817, venue.irvingplaza.com, $50
Thurston Moore + Okkyung Lee + Ikue Mori + John Zorn + William Winant
The Stone, 8 p.m.
Spend some of the last hours of 2016 with a few juggernauts in avant-garde music. Downtown icon John Zorn has been putting on New Year’s Eve improv concerts for a few years now at his Alphabet City music and performance space, the Stone. In the past, Fred Frith (Henry Cow), Mike Watt (Minutemen), bassist Bill Laswell, and many more have jammed with him. Joining Zorn this year are returning collaborators Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), cellist Okkyung Lee, and drummer Ikue Mori. Rounding out the killer group is percussionist William Winant, a fresh face to these year-end concerts. — Tanner Tafelski
Avenue C and 2nd Street, thestonenyc.com, $30
I have a confession to make. In the forty years I have lived in Manhattan, I have never once stood in Times Square and waited for the ball to drop on New Year’s Eve.
It is, I know, one of those obligatory New York experiences, like going to the top of the Empire State Building or climbing the Statue of Liberty. Back in the roaring Seventies, a friend of mine went to stand there for hours in the dark and cold. She reported that the cops wouldn’t let anyone return once they’d left the police pens, even to use the bathroom — so of course many resorted to relieving themselves where they stood. As the evening wore on, other merrymakers decided to dispose of their empty liquor bottles by hurling them into the crowds around them. Happy new year!
I am sure things are much more civilized now, in our more sedate age. Standing in Times Square really is one of our great traditions, a symbolic re-enactment of how our city became transformed by the modern age. It is a celebration of light, and the start of the city’s long transition from a hub of industry to one of diversion.
In the nineteenth century, the leading December 31 tradition was to go stand in front of Trinity Church, sing hymns, and listen to the church bells ring in the new year. This drew as many as fifteen thousand people, “from New Jersey, Long Island, and even Staten Island,” as the Times reported in 1875, completely overwhelming the congested downtown. Worse yet, the church bells’ chimes would often be drowned out by the din of revelers blowing on tin horns. In 1893, the Rev. Dr. Morgan Dix, longtime rector of Trinity and scion of a prominent New York family, threatened to put an end to this impertinence once and for all by canceling the bell ringing. In response, some 30 young “ragamuffins” from some of the city’s poorer wards showed up at Dr. Dix’s Chelsea home, passed in a letter “in a scrawly, boyish hand,” then serenaded him with their own noisemakers.
Trying to curb the increasingly boisterous celebrations, social reformers tried to start “sober festivals” in city parks, featuring such attractions as men’s choral groups singing patriotic songs, though that only went so far: After one attempt on the last day of 1900, it was reported that a chorus a thousand strong in City Hall Park “gave forth splendid melody, which, unfortunately, could not be heard at any distance” because of all the horns the crowd of a hundred thousand onlookers was blowing.
For the very rich, meanwhile, the custom had long been to open up their summer cottages — that is, vast marble mansions — in Newport for the holiday season, and hold lavish dinners there. Meanwhile, in the city’s seedier districts, mobs of drunks engaged in rowdier pastimes, following in the tradition of the 1820s “Callithumpians” who smashed everything in sight and attacked those swells who did remain in town on their way home from New Year’s balls.
All of that had already begun to change with the coming of the light on New Year’s Eve, 1879. Thomas Edison, the showman, had invited the world out to see the new year arrive in Menlo Park, which had been festooned with his new incandescent bulbs from the train station to his workshops. A reporter compared the effect to “the mellow sunset of an Italian autumn,” and as the old year sank away and the light grew in the darkness, the crowd gasped, “Marvelous!” and “Wonderful, wonderful!” Where the murky gaslight of the nineteenth century had only exaggerated the terrors of the city, “incandescent lighting,” as historian David Nasaw would write, “transformed the city from a dark and treacherous underworld into a glittering multicolored wonderland.”
There was a whole new class of white-collar New Yorkers on hand to enjoy it: clerks, managers, assistant managers, salesmen, saleswomen, secretaries, stenographers, typists (or “typewriters,” as they were then called). They worked shorter hours and had more spending cash than the vast majority of people toiling in factories or in fields. Many of them, for the first time, were single men and women living alone in apartments.
Whole new entertainment districts, such as Coney Island, with its millions of mesmerizing lights, sprung up in ensuing decades to give those young people a racier form of fun. The neighborhoods around 42nd Street began to fill up with theaters and dance halls, nickelodeons and motion picture palaces, rooftop cabarets and grand hotels, and casinos and “lobster palaces.” The combined seating capacity of New York’s theaters doubled in the final decade of the 19th century — and the new entertainments advertised themselves, of course, with still more light. The first electric sign in Times Square appeared in 1897; nine years later, the Knickerbocker Theatre advertised its production of The Red Mill with a revolving windmill covered in lightbulbs. By 1913, there would be over a million lights illuminating what was now known as the Great White Way.
“The center of the classical city was the forum and the agora,” historian William Taylor noted. “Times Square, located at a major transportation hub, was neither....Times Square’s very centrality meant that whatever took place was immediately in the national spotlight.”
Arthur Ochs had both sought that spotlight and helped to create it. In 1904, the Times owner decided to move his paper’s offices uptown, from “Newspaper Row” just across from City Hall to what was then Longacre Square, a district in the notorious Tenderloin long known mostly for horse barns, carriage shops, and brothels. Thanks to another transforming wonder of the age, steel-frame construction, Ochs threw up a thin, elegant tower, twenty-five stories high, to house his newspaper on the little wedge where Seventh Avenue crossed Broadway at 42nd Street. It was at the time the second tallest building in the city — and therefore the second tallest building in the world.
Ochs would have made it the tallest building anywhere if he could, but the subway limited just how deep the Times Tower’s supporting basements could be. The West Side IRT tunnel actually went through his new basement, and above the newspaper’s presses, located in the building’s four massive sub-basements. Ochs had turned this into an asset, collaborating with the head of the new subway system, Times stockholder August Belmont, to rename the area “Times Square.” That set off a series of grotesque, anti-Semitic howls from the city’s Hearst papers, charging a conspiracy between Ochs and Belmont to make 42nd Street the new Jewish cultural center of the city. William Randolph Hearst himself signed an editorial describing Ochs in classic anti-Semitic adjectives of the day: “uneducated...oily...[with] obsequiously curved shoulders.”
Ochs slapped Hearst with a libel suit and moved on to his next coup. He set the official opening of the Times Tower for December 31, 1904, and offered an all-day street party, complete with a concert band, followed by midnight fireworks. The party drew an estimated two hundred thousand revelers, who lingered on to see the big light show. The Times proudly reported — in the very last edition before moving to its new home — that at midnight, “From base to dome, the giant structure was alight, a torch to usher in the newborn [year], a funeral pyre for the old which pierced the very heavens.”
Meanwhile, the crowd below made so much noise with its hand rattles and tin horns that it reportedly could be heard all the way up in Croton, thirty miles away. Others may have engaged in other New Year’s rituals typical of the time: using “paper ticklers” — better known today as “blowouts,” those streamer things you blow out in people’s faces — and blowing the new “sneezing powders” in each other’s faces, a favorite practical joke of the time, and one that was known to provoke fisticuffs. As well it might: Most of the popular sneezing powders would later be banned by the FDA because they were found to contain coal tar byproducts and the carcinogen dianisidine.
Fireworks in the middle of a jammed city square with little egress was an even riskier proposition; as it was, at the first Times Square celebration the hot ash from the exploded fireworks — and from an accompanying “dynamite bomb” — fell onto the crowds below. (Living as they did in a city full of elevated trains, New Yorkers were accustomed to this, but still.) By 1907, the city had banned fireworks at the Times Square festivities, but Times electrician Walter Palmer suggested a new attraction: a time ball.
Time balls had become a thing in the nineteenth century. The invention of the marine chronometer in the 1730s had allowed sailors to measure longitude at sea, but without knowing the correct time, one could sail far off course. Seaports around the world took to dropping a huge ball from the top of a tall flagpole at a set time — either noon or 1 p.m. — so that sailors could see them and set their chronometers accordingly. From the 1820s on, time balls were increasingly popular, most of them resembling gigantic basketballs or, appropriately, huge martini olives skewered on ponderous swizzle sticks.
Ochs assigned the crafting of the Times’ first time ball to one Jacob Starr, a young German-Jewish immigrant. The first illuminated ball was just five feet in diameter, made of almost seven hundred pounds of iron, wood, and 25-watt electric lightbulbs. A mainmast was taken from the battleship USS New Mexico, and the ball was lowered by a set of pulleys.
The Times itself would move out of the Times Tower in 1914, that subway in the basement making it just too hard to run the presses, but it still owned the building until 1961, when it sold it to adman and developer Douglas Leigh, who stripped the Times Tower of its beautiful old Beaux-Arts cladding and character in the service of new occupant Allied Chemical. But Starr’s Artkraft Strauss company would go on making the ceremonial ball until 1996, using lighter and lighter materials to get it down to a mere two hundred pounds by 1955. For a time in the 1980s, the ball itself was replaced with an apple during the city’s ubiquitous “I Love New York” campaign, but that didn’t last. Lowered for decades “by six guys with ropes and a stopwatch,” according to Jeff Straus, president of Countdown Entertainment, which oversees the big drop, the ball was put on a computer timer for its sixty-second, seventy-foot dive in 1995, the same year it was tarted up with rhinestones and strobe lights.
Today, the Big Ball is nearly six tons and twelve feet in diameter and sits permanently atop what’s been renamed 1 Times Square, awaiting its big moment. It’s now programmed to project different “themes” each year, and its 2,688 Waterford crystals reflect the light from 32,256 red, blue, white, and green LEDs that maker Philips claims are “capable of creating a palette of more than 16 million vibrant colors” (even though the number of colors detectable to the human eye is said to be a scant 10 million). If you were to find the idea of this grossly ostentatious behemoth sliding down the top of a garish, empty shell of a building a metaphor for the city we’ve become, you would not be altogether wrong.
Through all the changes, the crowds in the square below waxed and waned. December 31, 1933, coming shortly after the repeal of Prohibition, saw a particularly raucous, crowded celebration, drawing at least four hundred thousand people — a significant number of them women. In December 1942 and 1943, when New York observed its citywide nighttime dim-out in order to keep Nazi submarines from using all the bright lights as a backdrop for torpedoing American ships, no ball dropped, and the subdued throngs instead listened to chimes ringing out through sound-truck speakers. The end of 1945 brought out an ecstatic throng, and in the postwar years crowds of over a million became common.
Yet for all the enthusiasm, in those years the crowds didn’t really start to gather until 10 or 10:30, and dispersed quickly after the ball dropped. There was nothing else really to see outside, and Times Square still boasted topflight hotels and clubs, featuring entertainment by the likes of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. People would come out, watch the ball drop, and head back to the bar.
NBC nonetheless decided to make it a television show, albeit a twenty-minute show at first, from 11:45 to 12:05, hosted by the famed radio ventriloquist Paul Winchell — yes, he was a ventriloquist on the radio — and his dummy, Jerry Mahoney. (Winchell would go on to provide the voice of Tigger in Disney’s Winnie the Pooh films, as well as patent the first artificial heart.) Within a few years, CBS’s New Year’s show had begun featuring the stylings of Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians at the Roosevelt Hotel and then the Waldorf Astoria, playing their signature song, “Auld Lang Syne,” an old Scottish tune popularized by Robert Burns in New York a century earlier. The ball dropping was still just a short cutaway, and that would not change until the 1970s, when ABC brought Dick Clark into the square to host “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.”
Alternatives remained. Festivals of one kind or another had taken place in Central Park since before 1912, when another city financial crisis threatened to cancel it. Andrew Carnegie, J.D. Rockefeller, and other kindly robber barons stepped in to fund the event. The city started new celebrations in the park in the late 1960s, despite the park’s reputation at the time. Finances threatened to kill that, too, but this time individuals who were not necessarily billionaires stepped in, and in 1976 they produced an actual parade, led by individuals costumed as the New Year and the Spirit of the Bethesda Fountain, from Rockefeller Center to the park, where a crowd of ten thousand was entertained by jugglers, performance artists, and ten park guides dressed as giant hands.
Yet if the crime rates of the Seventies were not sustainable, neither was the creativity, and by 1980 the Central Park Festival had morphed into the “Midnight Run” — excuse me, the “Emerald Nuts Midnight Run” — which anyone can join this year for a paltry $65 fee. When my wife and I took part in it, some years ago (when it did not cost $65), it was a fun party for the first mile or so, with costumed runners drinking Champagne out of the bottle. Then it turned into a numbing slog, through three more miles of spectral landscape. As my wife sprinted far ahead in the last mile, I heard a body fall and a short scream somewhere behind me. I did not look back.
Yet the main draw for the city throngs remains Times Square. With its retread musicals and its national-chain eateries, Times Square today is a happier, safer, blander, less significant place than it has ever been before. But it is still the empire of light. Looking at the pictures of the crowds gathered at midnight over the years, it is remarkable how the hats change, the coats change, the buildings and the signs around them rise and fall. But the faces look the same, staring up, mesmerized, into the light.
If pop culture pushes one message from Halloween through New Year’s, it’s that holidays are for family. Television, movies, carols, and commercials bombard us with joyful moms, dads, kids, grandparents, and enthusiastic pets showering one another with love, turkey, and an entire 401(k)‘s worth of gifts. In these portrayals, mothers don’t spew homophobic slurs, uncles aren’t inappropriately handsy, and nobody’s drunk, high, or hostile. No one’s alone.
But if you have a toxic family, balancing the dictates of holiday culture with what will keep you emotionally healthy and happy can be challenging. The holiday season “can be a tremendous source of stress and can trigger or exacerbate depression, anxiety, frustration, and loneliness,” says Adrianne Traylor, a CUNY administrator and therapist who has worked with families and at-risk youth. This can be especially tough, she says, if you come from “estranged, abusive, or dysfunctional families, or don’t have the types of social bonds we expect adults to have, like a spouse or extensive friendship network.”
I can relate. Thanks to a tumultuous relationship with my parents, for most of my life I experienced the winter holidays as painful and isolating, producing a depression that could make working, socializing, or even getting out of bed feel overwhelming. Even when I was swimming in holiday invitations from friends, I was too steeped in family trauma to realize they were asking because they wanted me around, not because they felt sorry for me. When I’d accept a one-off invite, I’d feel like a wistful outsider. I craved a holiday ritual with the same loved ones every year. Something consistent. Something that felt like mine.
What finally allowed me to break the cycle was a gathering at a small South Slope bar that, every Christmas Eve, becomes the Island of Misfit Toys. Brooklyn playwright Stephen Gracia, who co-founded the independent theater group Dialog With Three Chords (D3C) in 2011, is the island’s Rudolph.
Ten years ago, as a last-minute “screw it, let’s see if anyone’s around” attempt to squeeze one non-stressful night into the obligation-filled holiday season, Gracia and his wife, nonprofit fundraiser Sara Beinert, invited some friends out for a low-key Christmas Eve at a local bar. “We needed a pause,” Gracia explains. “Not just from family pressure, but also how hectic the holidays are, how stressful on every level.” Three people showed up, but it was enough to plant the seed.
Though he always loved the aesthetic of Christmas — the decorations, the carols, the weather — Gracia found that the holiday came “wrapped up in a real sadness and depression underneath the surface-level joy you’re told is supposed to be there. You can dwell on, and sometimes you’re forced to confront, familial relationships that are not good. That can lend a bitterness to the holiday, no matter how earnestly I wanted to connect to its secular aspects.”
That alienation subsided after the bar night he started on a whim became an annual tradition treasured by twenty actors, musicians, artists, and activists. Some of us are Jews, atheists, or lapsed Christians; others celebrate Christmas Day with their families but are free on its eve. Whether we have nowhere else to go or use Friendmas to avoid certain relatives, each of us misfit toys embraces the tradition. As an agnostic Jew who rarely drinks, I didn’t expect to slake my craving for an affirming, loving holiday ritual at a bar on Christmas Eve, yet joining this community for seven years proved transformative.
“The first year I came, my father just died. Last year, my long-term relationship was ending,” says Edie Nugent, D3C’s producer. She found “enormous comfort” in celebrating with friends who didn’t arrive weighted with expectations: “You don’t have to hide failure or perform happiness for friends the way you might for family.”
In 2013, the experience inspired Gracia to write The Krampus, a play about a group of holiday orphans in a bar, which D3C performs annually. (This year’s took place at the Dramatists Guild of America on December 13.) In a pivotal scene, a bartender works Christmas Eve because he “can’t find anywhere else to fit.” His family wounds leave him feeling stigmatized, like the fruitcake no one likes but everyone takes out of pity:
I tried going home, but that was a fool’s fucking errand. Every year, I’d be prepared — expect the best but accept the worst — I couldn’t get my arms to extend wide enough to accept it all. [My friends] have their own families, and they can’t host me every year, so I started to get passed around, from friend to friend. “I’ll take him this year, and you’ll get him next year.” I became the Re-Gifted Man.
Before Friendmas, I’d always felt like the fruitcake. Lots of people feel that way this time of year, according to Manhattan clinical social worker Jennifer Haus, whose practice addresses anxiety, addiction, and chronic pain. Holiday pressure to “return to the scene of the original crime,” she explains, can cause anxiety and depression and threaten the sobriety of people raised with “personality-disordered parents, homophobic family members, alcoholism and substance abuse, domestic violence, neglect, or sexual and physical abuse.”
Therapist Susan Pan, who treats addiction and family discord, assures patients it is not their duty to prioritize relatives’ wishes above their own mental health needs. To avoid traumatic family reunions, she suggests you “create a spoken record, a line or two, and stick to it no matter how they try to trip you up. ‘I’m sorry you’re disappointed, but I’m staying in Brooklyn this year. I’m going to Marsha’s.’ “ Don’t overexplain, warns Pan, and “don’t deviate. If they say, ‘Oh, but your uncle from France is coming! You have to,’ just repeat your boundary sentence.”
People who’ve escaped abuse “deserve to create new holiday traditions,” Haus says, whether that’s going to the movies, getting a massage, or hosting a holiday party of your own. “If you don’t have friends, volunteer at a food pantry,” she suggests. “Travel to another state or country.” Most of all, give yourself permission to create your own family.
Creating unconventional holiday rituals can be healing. Holly, a computer programmer from Champaign, Illinois, has hosted a huge annual “Thanksgiving Dinner for Wayward Souls” since 1992. “I like providing for my friends, letting them know they’re welcome, they have an alternative,” she says. “Sometimes the most important thing is knowing there’s an option out there.” After she and her husband moved, a friend walked into her new place on Thanksgiving and said, “Home!”
The key to forging fulfilling alternatives to one-size-fits-all holiday culture, according to those who’ve attempted it, is to celebrate on your own terms. When her mother first refused to acknowledge her female partner, reporter Chris Lombardi found a crowd that would: the annual Bay Area alternative holiday institution, “Kung Pao Kosher Comedy: Jewish Comedy on Christmas in a Chinese Restaurant.” New York writer and artist Swati Khurana says she’s spent many a New Year’s Eve vacationing with her best female friends for bonding time that had nothing to do with boyfriends, husbands, or kids. San Diego journalist Rafael Ramirez joins a large group at a diner each year to leave a huge holiday tip, sometimes hundreds of dollars.
Kate Barnhart, director of the harm reduction organization New Alternatives, spends the holidays with the group’s homeless LGBT youth, mostly ages 16 to 24. This Thanksgiving, Union Square restaurant Craftbar hosted thirty New Alternatives clients, “creating a sense of family and community, and decreasing some painful and negative moods,” says Barnhart. New Alternatives stays open on Christmas, and this year Barnhart will host Sunday dinner.
“People always ask women, ‘Why don’t you have any children?’ “ Barnhart, not a parent, laughs. “I can say, ‘I have a lot of children!’ We are a family, in an unusual sort of structure. It’s really important to find your own family if the family you were randomly assigned to wasn’t a good fit for you.”
Traylor couldn’t agree more. Creating traditions with “chosen family who bolster our self-esteem and sense of connectedness can turn [an upsetting] period into one of celebration and joy,” the therapist says. But what if you absolutely must spend the holidays with toxic relatives? Haus advises calling a friend before and after to “take your emotional pulse”; making a firm plan for arrival and departure so you don’t feel trapped; setting strict boundaries for topics you will not discuss; and allowing yourself the freedom to leave early if things get too heated. And above all, she says, “Lower your expectations — so you don’t get disappointed if Mom lights the Christmas tree on fire or Dad gets drunk and forgets the Hanukkah presents.”
Still, if you find yourself crying over commercials intended to be heartwarming, it may be time to interrupt the routines that have made the holidays feel traumatic. Not everyone has access to the unconditionally loving and supportive family that Hollywood, advertisers, and Facebook pretend are universal this time of year, but everyone deserves an emotionally healthy holiday season.