Christmas in New York: NYC’s Spectacular Holiday Traditions

November 30, 2015
Christmas, Rockefeller Center, New York, NYC

Rockefeller Center’s Channel Gardens is dazzling for Christmas. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

New York City celebrates the holidays in a big way. From Thanksgiving to the New Year the city is decked out in dazzling decorations, its department stores are bursting with shoppers, and there is a bounty of holiday events and performances. In fact, there are so many holiday sights and celebrations, it can be difficult to keep track of the festivities.

Here is a roundup of New York’s best holiday offerings.

Christmas Animated Window, Lord and Taylor, New York, NYC

An NYC Classic: an animated window at Lord and Taylor. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

NYC Holiday Decorations

Animated Store WindowsLord & Taylor was the first department store to display animated Christmas windows, and their windows remain a must-see for their spectacular holiday tableaux. Macy’s Herald Square offers fantastic Christmas scenes in its windows on Broadway and along 34th Street. Further uptown, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales present animated holiday spectacles in their windows. And chic Barney’s on Madison Avenue is popular for its creative and humorous windows celebrating pop culture.

Met Museum Christmas Tree

The Christmas Tree and Creche at the Met Museum. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Rockefeller Center – this midtown commercial complex is the epicenter of New York’s holiday celebration. High-end stores and Christmas displays are found throughout the “center,” but the highlight is the Channel Gardens on Fifth Avenue between 49th & 50th Streets. The passageway’s central fountains are lined with illuminated white angels leading to the towering holiday tree.

Metropolitan Museum’s Christmas Tree and Baroque Crèche – set amongst medieval art treasures, this enormous tree is decorated with 50 antique Cherubs and Angels (clad in silk, no less). Below is an authentic 18th century Neapolitan Crèche (figurines depicting a Nativity scene, along with traditional village characters). Recorded music and candlelight compliment the old-world setting. Free with admission to the Met.

Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden – another NYC holiday tradition is the NY Botanical Garden’s Holiday Train Show. The “show” features model trains that chug over bridges and past miniature replicas of NYC landmarks made of plant elements such as nuts, bark, and leaves.  Train show favorites include mini versions of the original Yankee Stadium, the Statue of Liberty, Radio City Music Hall, and the Brooklyn Bridge.

NYCB Nutcracker, NYC

NYC Ballet’s annual production of The Nutcracker is an NYC tradition. Photo: NYC Ballet

NYC Holiday Performances

The Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular certainly lives up to its name. This beloved show, a New York tradition since 1932, is an opulent pageant with glittering sets and costumes, songs and dances by the world-famous Rockettes (including the classic March of the Wooden Soldiers) and the Living Nativity.

At Lincoln Center, the New York City Ballet’s staging of The Nutcracker is a local holiday tradition. Across the plaza, the Metropolitan Opera presents a special holiday production, including abbreviated stagings of The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel sung in English.

Another high note of the season – performances of Handel’s oratorio The Messiah at Lincoln Center (including the fun Sing-along Messiah), Carnegie Hall and at several of the city’s churches. Many churches offer first-rate classical Christmas concerts as well. Check the NY Times’ Arts & Entertainment Guide or Time Out New York’s music section for listings.

New Years Eve, Times Square, NYC

One of the world’s greatest parties – New Years Eve in Times Square.

NYC Holiday Traditions

Hanukkah – New York has two giant menorahs (both claiming to be the world’s largest) observing the Festival of Lights. Many of the city’s synagogues and Jewish organizations hold Hanukkah services, celebrations and concerts. Check Chabad.org for complete listings and details.

Christmas Eve Midnight MassSt. Patrick’s Cathedral is the spiritual heart of the city, and its midnight mass on Christmas Eve is the city’s most revered Christmas rite. Despite the cathedral’s enormous size, it can be tough to find a spot inside. If you who cannot attend the service, it is televised live in New York and several other areas.

New Year’s Eve in Times Square – Times Square has hosted a massive celebration to ring in the New Year since 1904, and every year more than a million people join the party. Due to security measures, viewing areas are penned in by the NYPD and side streets are closed as the “square” fills with revelers. Once a viewing “pen” reaches capacity it is closed and the next begins to fill, progressing northward from 43rd Street. Be advised the areas closest to the Times Building (on which the ball drops at midnight) can fill early in the day. Once you are admitted to a “pen” you may not return if you leave the enclosure. For full details, including the roster of live performances during the celebration, check the Times Square Alliance

Dickens’ Christmas Carol at the Morgan Library – Charles Dickens created a sensation when he read his classic story A Christmas Carol to New Yorkers in 1867. Financier J.P. Morgan was so enthralled he purchased Dickens’ original manuscript of the story. That manuscript is on display every December at the stunning Morgan Library.

Ice skating rink, Bryant Park, Christmas, New York, NYC

Hit the ice on the skating rink in Bryant Park. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

NYC Holiday Fun

Shopping NYC Department Stores – New York’s famed department stores draw crowds of holiday shoppers with their special sales, extended holiday hours and dazzling decorations. The most popular include Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Barney’s, Bergdorf Goodman, and massive Macy’s Herald Square. While in Macy’s, head to the 8th floor to the enchanting Santa Land and deliver your holiday wish list to Santa Claus (that is, if you’ve been nice this year).

Henri Bendel Christmas Tree, NYC

A spectacular Holiday Tree in Fifth Avenue’s Henri Bendel. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Ice Skating – Ice skating has long been a favorite winter pastime in New York, and the city offers several wonderful ice rinks amidst the festivities. Undoubtedly the most famous is the Rink at Rockefeller Center, where you can skate beneath the colossal Christmas tree. Another superb ice rink lies at the heart of Bryant Park’s Winter Village, surrounded by kiosks selling artisan gifts and food and overlooked by a glittering holiday tree. Skating Wollman Rink in Central Park is a magical experience, gliding across the ice with the dramatic backdrop of the midtown skyline. And taking the ice at Prospect Park’s state-of-the-art LeFrak Center is wonderful wintertime fun.

Holiday Markets – Unique holiday gifts can be found at one of NYC’s Holiday Markets, where booths and kiosks offer artisan crafts and food. Bryant Park’s Winter Village is a festive marketplace, and there are holiday markets at Union Square, Columbus Circle and the Grand Central Holiday Fair.

Christmas, Time Warner Center, NYC

Time Warner Center sparkles with a star-studded installation. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Have to experienced the holidays in New York? What is your favorite memory?

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