NEW YORK -- In the final days of December, when pine wreaths and prickly evergreens are sold on nearly every street corner of Manhattan, when parents drag their children to pageants and parties and plays, there is perhaps no finer sight in the city than the windows of Fifth Avenue.
Filled with jewel-encrusted drummer boys, miniature wooden quartets dancing the waltz and shoes that cost as much as a plane ticket to France, Christmas is the one time of year that even people who could never afford say $2,100 for a shawl-collared tuxedo or $1,000 for hand-woven moccasins with crepe soles nonetheless venture into the most exclusive of shops.
But Christmas almost didn't make it to New York this year. The recession kept people out of the stores until they could resist no longer. For a while, a garbage strike competed with the finely oiled elves and dancing bears in shop windows for the attention of the city's befuddled tourists.
There was also the weather. Until yesterday, temperatures were more suited to Malaysia than to Manhattan.
But the spirit of Christmas swept into town at the last minute yesterday. At 6 a.m., the temperature in Central Park was a soggy 63 degrees. By noon it had dropped to a more exhilarating 35.
The cold front delivered a badly needed dose of electric shock to shoppers making their final pass through the great citadels of fashion. Suddenly, cashmere leggings and furs seemed worth buying again.
"Thank god for the cold," shuddered a tastefully clad sales clerk at Henri Bendel. "Try selling winter coats when its 60 degrees out there."
For the devoted who could not obtain tickets to the Christmas Vigil at St. Patrick's Cathedral, yesterday afternoon was the one great chance to visit the arching gothic sanctuary. Like tickets to all the best shows in the city, the 2,500 seats to the Midnight Mass are gone months in advance.
"We get requests right after Christmas for the next year," said Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the archdiocese. "It's first come, first served. But by today, forget it. I don't care who you are. Nobody can get a ticket on Christmas Eve."
So the faithful without the tickets wandered in all day yesterday, shaking their heads in wonder at the muted indigo stained-glass windows and the delicately carved, life-size nativity scene surrounded -- as are the chapels of the main altar and the nave and the hard wooden pews -- with dozens of red and white poinsettias.
"It's pretty spectacular, don't you think?" said Officer John Behan of the New York Police, who had drawn Christmas Eve duty at the Cathedral. "I get paid to do this."
He admitted, however, that the duty isn't all sacred joy. He and his colleagues must take care to safeguard the church from the many people who are often found protesting on its front steps. In the age of AIDS, the political action group ACT-UP has staged unnerving events at the cathedral.
"You want to try to keep them from getting up in the middle of the service and roller-skating through the aisles," said Officer Behan. "It's better if you can avoid that stuff."
Perhaps it is not the most traditional of Christmas locales, but there is nowhere in the city of New York where it feels more like Christmas than Zabar's, the Upper West Side emporium of all that can be eaten.
Yesterday afternoon, cars sat three deep on Broadway outside the store at 81st Street and a line of customers formed to enter the store. Only a few hundred people are allowed in at a time; more than that is a fire hazard.
Customers taller than 6-feet find it wise to lower their heads when entering Zabar's. Otherwise they run the risk of knocking into the stringed kosher salami, the sausages, cheeses , bread baskets, copper pots and cauldrons suspended from the ceiling.
"At the fish counter, anyone wishing to buy caviar, we have an express lane," announced the loudspeaker. "Caviar or foie gras only, please." Two dozen patrons move like piranha attacking prey.
Others are busy choosing among at least six types of olives and 25 brands of mustard. There are five hundred pounds of coffee on display and a long line of people are deciding whether to buy Kona ($10.49 a pound) or French Roast ($7.49).
"I would like a half a pound of fancy sturgeon," Emma Lawrence said when her number, 811, was finally called at the fish counter. "Fancy sturgeon."
"A half a pound?" one of the three dozen deli men retorts. "Are you kidding? Who are you feeding, a ghost?" She immediately caved in and doubled her order.
The pilgrims have crammed themselves into the Promenade at Rockefeller Center. There, they stare at the strapping Christmas tree that hovers over the ice rink.
Stationed around the rink are at least four Santas, six agents for various homeless organizations, three Salvation Army collection depots (one with coronet player, two without) and several soapbox preachers.
Close to the southern tip of the Center, near where local television reporter Gabe Pressman is repeatedly stumbling over his evening set piece ("She was a special little girl. . . . Nearly 100 years ago, a special little girl wrote a letter. . . . She was special. . . . " he intoned), a man from Arkansas spoke of the holy power of the Bible.
"You must be remade," he said thumping his blue overnight bag with his meaty fist. "You who would believe in the lord must be born again."
Standing directly across from him, separated by hundreds of people and millions of miles, another preacher, dressed in a fez and white gown, delivered a different message.
"He was a black man," the man shouted over and again to the dumbfounded Japanese and German tourists who surrounded him. "The man you celebrate today was a black man."