Tales From Christmas In Harlem

You know the song, but what's Christmas in Harlem truly like?

First of all, Merry Christmas to you all.

In the weeks leading up to Jesus’s birth, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid all the Christmas music. It’s nonstop — the radio, blaring out of department store speakers, even seeping out the headphones of fellow commuters. Rappers aren’t ones to miss out – especially not Kanye West. Three years ago he released, “Christmas in Harlem,” a song I am now declaring the official Christmas jingle of New York. Kanye is from Chicago, though, and doesn’t quite give us the inside scoop on what Christmas is like in upper Manhattan. For more insight, we’ve taken to the streets to find out how native New Yorkers spend Christmas in Harlem. Here’s to soaking it all in. Happy holidaze.

Christmas in Harlem Flowers

Antoine Ashe, Maitre D’ at Sylvia’s

Years in Harlem: 23

For me, Christmas is all about the carols. I used to be in the Boys Club of Harlem, it was tradition, and Christmastime we learnt a lot of carols and had a lot of performances. I probably know every Christmas song ever. And I ain’t gonna lie, I was spoiled, no, fortunate on Christmas. Christmas time for me meant new coats, sneakers, and the latest game. 

Christmas in Harlem People

Stu, employee at Black Star Video

Years in Harlem: 40

Back in the day, even though we were poor, your mom and your dad always made sure to have the lights up and have a present to open on Christmas day. Whether or not they had the money, they made sure. You used to see lights everywhere. These days you don’t see that. People ain’t spending money on that, especially in Harlem. It don’t feel like Christmas here. In the homes yes, but not outside. If you want the real Christmas spirit you need to go downtown. The energy is different. We can’t spend like that.

Daniel Ramirez

Years in Harlem: 20

Christmas for me is Jesus Christ. It’s special because the family gets together and I have the opportunity to explain what Christmas is. Christmas is navidad. I sit on the patio on 128th between Lenox and 7th, gather all the children, family, and friends around me and I explain Christmas.

Christmas in Harlem rooster

Olivia and Anthony, volunteers at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Years in Harlem: Over 65

Olivia: I spend Christmas with family. Wherever I go I take Christmas with me. I shop, celebrate…family, church. It’s about my family, my kids, my grandchildren. 

Anthony: It’s the same as anywhere else. But now I think a lot about them pushing property taxes really high trying to kick Black folks out. Columbia’s taking over, too, and it’s putting a lot of people out of business. A lot of new stores are coming in that are not for people of the neighborhood. 

Shawn D, “Hospitarian” at Manna’s Restaurant

Years in Harlem: 43

I remember playing in the snow with my brothers on Christmas and getting my first bike. There was snow on the ground and I was trying to get traction, but I couldn’t. I got married on Christmas. That’s the day she wanted to get married. During the holiday time people are more friendly. They say ‘Thank you,’ [and] speak more, help you out more, say ‘Happy holidays.’ But after that, they go back to being people in Harlem. After that, it’s all over.  

Christmas in Harlem

Chelsea and Lance, employees at Grandma’s Place 

Years in Harlem: Over 21

Chelsea: I’m 21 and he’s lived here longer than me. There is my grandma’s store that she opened nine years ago. She was a teacher and wanted to bring books to the neighborhood, so she opened a toy store hoping that they’ll come in and see the books too.

Lance: I remember, when I was little, I had the habit of taking toys apart. I got a little Mickey Mouse watch for Christmas and I remember waking up early and taking it apart. I was able to put it back together, but with four parts missing and I thought my dad wouldn’t find out. He found out. 

C: I remember sledding down the stairs at Mount Morris Park. They were so steep and it was really dangerous and scary, but it was fun.

L: When you’re little, everything is scary, but you gotta try it.    

Photography by Lucas Farrar/Far Fetched

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