Looking a Lot Like Christmas
Posted December 16, 2017 3:33 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — Sibyl McCormac Groff can barely walk a half-block in Midtown Manhattan this time of year without being approached by friends and strangers alike.
“Part of it is my manner — I smile and talk to people — and part of it is my red coat,” said McCormac Groff, who leads idiosyncratic Christmas tours around Rockefeller Center.
She strikes a small but noticeable figure in her red coat and a nearly matching beret bearing flashing lights and the words “Let’s Get Lit.”
It is all part of her holiday getup. On a recent tour, she was trimmed like a Christmas tree, a motley mix of reds and greens that included Christmas-themed eyeglasses and jewelry, a red reindeer shirt, a pair of slacks bearing Santa insignia and a “Ho, Ho, Ho” handbag.
“People send me these things because they all know I’m a Christmas freak,” she said, adding that the outfit helps keep her safe while giving tours.
“I wear red so people don’t trample me, because I’m so short,” said McCormac Groff, who stands 4 feet 9 inches tall.
“You take your life into your hands crossing the street in this city,” she said. “If you wear red, they see you better, since everybody in New York wears black.”
With her low center of gravity, McCormac Groff can weave through the crowds so deftly that her tour takers have trouble keeping up with her. Last week, she held a marker aloft: a large plastic candy cane above the crowds around the Rockefeller Center tree, whose arrival each December she never misses.
The tours led by McCormac Groff, who is known alternately as the Spirited New Yorker and the Christmas Elf of Midtown, are whimsical and informative, part personality, part history.
She began a recent one in the bustling lobby of 30 Rockefeller Plaza and led the group into a small alcove that serves as a broom closet, but was soon cleared out of the space by a security guard who recognized her and said, “You should know the procedure.”
McCormac Groff told the group that the tradition of erecting a tree at Rockefeller Center dated back to its construction during the Great Depression when workers chipped in for a tree and decorated it with homemade ornaments.
The legend of Sinterklaas was brought over by Dutch settlers, she said. Santa’s image was developed in popular paintings by artists like Thomas Nast and Norman Rockwell.
Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore helped establish Santa as a chubby man with the jolly salutation that McCormac Groff often employs herself.
“If you’re tense, just try saying ‘Ho, ho, ho,'” she told her tour. “It’s a de-stresser.”
McCormac Groff, who is divorced and lives on the Upper East Side, grew up in Syracuse and adored Christmas as a child, decorating a tree and wrapping presents for her dolls.
In her youth, she visited the Plaza hotel and the ‘21’ Club in Manhattan and was infused with the lore of the city, especially at Christmastime.
She eventually moved here and for years sent out Christmas newsletters to friends and followers, offering things to do, reviews of the Rockefeller Center tree and ratings of the decorated shop windows along Fifth Avenue.
After being encouraged by a friend, McCormac Groff recently self-published a book, “A New York Christmas: Ho-ho-ho at Gothamtide!” which is part guidebook and part historical vignettes.
She coined the word “Gothamtide” to describe the holiday traditions that began in the city out of the commonality of the diverse cultures here.
“Since New York is full of so many different people, Christmas here is about learning how different cultures observe the holidays,” she said, and then recounted the story of a Sikh cabdriver who told her he keeps Santa Claus on his religious shrine all year long “because Santa Claus is for everybody.”
She led her group into St. Patrick’s Cathedral to view the Christmas crèche, which included among the biblical statues a golden retriever, a modern tribute to the current rector’s pet.
“I think that’s hysterical,” said McCormac Groff, who then led the group past the windows of the Cartier store on Fifth Avenue and past the ‘21’ Club, where she said she has traditionally enjoyed dinner on Christmas Eve.
On the crowded sidewalk, she dodged a vendor pushing his peanut cart, and then a scruffy man yelling obscenities.
“Welcome to New York, folks,” she told her group, and steered them into the Peninsula Hotel to finish up by pointing out the decorations, including snowmen wearing bellhop caps.
Then she arrived at the hotel’s rooftop bar, where a manager took a selfie with her and then, charmed by the little lady in red, offered her a free drink.
“In that case, I’ll take a glass of Champagne,” she said and promptly debriefed him on Christmas traditions in his native Romania.
He had to return to work, he said, and she held up her glass of bubbly Christmas cheer.
“OK,” she said. “Ho, ho, ho.”