Who does holiday cheer better than New York? The famous poem 'Twas the Night Before Christmas' was supposedly inspired by the festive atmosphere in one of the city’s downtown markets in 1822, and, according to Miracle on 34th Street, yes, there is a Santa Claus – and he presides at Macy’s.
But it’s not all yuletide cheer: Across the five boroughs, there are Hanukkah and Kwanzaa celebrations too, and let’s not forget, New Year’s Eve is just around the corner. From outdoor skating rinks to sprawling gift markets to the brightest lights in the city, here are some of the best things to do in New York during the holiday season.
Kick off the festivities on the right foot
The holidays seem to start earlier and earlier each year, but for many people, the season doesn’t officially begin until Santa Claus makes his appearance at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This year’s extravaganza features more than a dozen character balloons, including new faces (Baby Yoda!) and old favorites alike, as well as Broadway performances, floats, inflatables and marching bands galore.
The parade may be the main event, but you can also head to the Upper West Side (Columbus Avenue and 72nd Street) the night before to see the giant balloons being inflated. Once a more word-of-mouth situation, it’s become a full-blown affair (ahem) in recent years, with people turning out in droves to watch their favorite characters come to life.
Given the pandemic, however, the 2021 celebration should be a bit more restrained: Capacity is limited, masks are required and those 12 and up will be asked to show proof of vaccination along with a photo ID matching their CDC card. Negative tests won’t permitted as a substitute, though kids ineligible for the shot can get in with a vaxxed adult.
Window-shop on Fifth Avenue
The window displays in the shops lining Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue are a near-legendary holiday attraction, and this year’s efforts promise to be as impressive as ever. Start at 49th Street with Saks Fifth Avenue and cross over to Bergdorf Goodman at 58th, then hit the other side of the street on your way back down.
The Tiffany & Co. flagship at 57th usually shows off something special, and near Rockefeller Center, the Godiva store – which has been known to flaunt hundreds of pounds of the signature product in its displays – is sure to give chocoholics a thrill. Don’t forget the outliers: Further south, Lord & Taylor (5th Avenue at 38th Street) and Macy’s (34th Street and Broadway) are both worth a visit.
The sidewalks can get crowded, so mornings are your best bet if you want to check out the scenes without having to jostle for position.
See the lights in southwest Brooklyn
New Yorkers and tourists alike travel deep into Brooklyn to gawk at the spectacularly excessive lights on the homes in Dyker Heights, a residential neighborhood that takes its Christmas decorations very, very seriously. Book a guided tour, or wander the streets on your own – walking the blocks between 7th and 13th avenues and 76th and 86th streets should put you in the middle of the action.
It’s a trek via public transit, but if you drive, traffic can be a nightmare, so you’ll have to pick your poison. For best results, visit when a high concentration of people are likely to have their decorations up – say, mid-December to early January – and get there before 9pm, when most of the lights go out for the evening.
Take to the ice in Midtown Manhattan
The ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center is perhaps the city’s most famous seasonal spot, and although gliding by that giant tree is a lovely experience, it’s also tiny, expensive (from US$20 to $54, depending on the time of day, plus $10 for skate rentals), and the lines regularly drag on for hours.
Instead, there’s Central Park's Wollman Rink, which is bigger, mostly cheaper (from US14 to $23 for adults, plus $11 rental) and equally atmospheric, thanks in part to a recent refurbishment, which added a new clubhouse, murals from local artists and concessions from Harlem restaurant Melba’s.
For an even better deal, reserve ice time at Bryant Park’s Winter Village, where admission is free, though rentals range anywhere from US$15 to $45 (shoot for off-peak hours to get the lower end of that scale). Unsteady on those blades? There’s street curling here too, as well as private igloos accommodating up to eight people, for those who prefer to come in from the cold.
Attend a massive outdoor Hanukkah party
The Jewish festival of lights begins early this year, and there’s no better way to welcome in the holiday’s eight days and – in the immortal words of Adam Sandler – eight crazy nights than with a big ol’ party.
Kicking off November 28 with live music and the lighting of what’s billed as the world’s largest menorah, a 32-foot-high, 4000-pound steel behemoth, the festivities take place daily through December 5 at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, with lightings at 6pm on weeknights, 3:30pm on Friday, 7pm on Saturday and 5:30pm on Sunday. (There’s also a similar event at Manhattan’s Grand Army Plaza, but you’ll only find the concerts – and the hot latkes – across the East River.)
Join in the Kwanzaa festivities
This seven-day celebration of African-American culture is observed annually from December 26 to January 1, and there are plenty of options within the city limits to explore the holiday’s principles of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.
Chief among them is the celebration that’s been held at Harlem’s iconic Apollo theater since 2006. Titled Kwanzaa: A Regeneration Celebration, this year’s event will be virtual (pay what you wish; available to watch live on December 26 or on demand through January 3), hosted by Imhotep Gary Byrd and featuring performances by Abdel Salaam’s Forces of Nature Dance Theatre, a local troupe that mixes contemporary modern, West African, house and hip-hop dance styles.
Across the river, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum is marking its twelfth year of Kwanzaa festivities with a five-day family event highlighting the holiday’s culture, including programs dedicated to storytelling, djembe drum, African dance and artist-led mural- and gift-making. Museum admission is free on Thursdays from 2pm to 5pm; otherwise, it costs US$13 for anyone over one year old.
Visit the world’s most famous Christmas tree
Rockefeller Center is the capital of NYC Christmas, and its massive tree has been a mainstay since 1931. This year’s Norway spruce is 79ft tall and 46ft wide, weighing in at 12 tons – and that’s before you factor in 50,000-plus LED lights and the 900-pound (408.23kg) Swarovski star capping it all off. Yes, the plaza is almost always packed, but it’s worth fighting your way through to snap a few pics, particularly after dark when the lights bounce off the bare shoulders of the golden Prometheus statue.
The annual lighting ceremony takes place on December 1, and the tree remains lit daily from 6:00am to midnight through New Year’s Eve, except on Christmas Day, when it shines for 24 hours, and on New Year’s Eve, when the lights click off at 9:00pm.
Been there, done that? Head uptown to Central Park on December 2, where there’s carol-singing and ice-carving before a flotilla of trees is lit on the Harlem Meer.
Catch a classic holiday show, or one with a twist
The Winter Solstice celebration at St John the Divine is a beloved, and rather secular, concert series (live-streaming this year from December 17 to 18; also available on demand), while Radio City Music Hall's Christmas Spectacular (on now through January 2) is the show every New York kid sees growing up, with dozens of dancing Santas and that amazing line of Rockettes’ legs a-kicking.
Up at Lincoln Center, New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker is making an in-person return, kicking off November 26 and running through January 2 with a cast and crew of hundreds – not to mention a much-beloved score by Peter Tschaikovsky and choreography by the legendary George Balanchine.
Too conventional for your taste? Try the Hip Hop Nutcracker instead, a touring show melding that classic Tschaikovsky score with modern dance, touching down in Flatbush, Brooklyn, on December 19.
For all indoor activities in NYC, proof of full vaccination is required for those ages 12 and up, along with photo ID. Mask mandates vary from venue to venue, so check on the specifics before you go.
Get your shopping done outdoors
By November, quite a few of New York’s parks and public spaces have been transformed into hotly anticipated holiday marketplaces. Through December 24, more than 160 vendors set up shop in Union Square, hawking arts and crafts, while 170-plus feature at the market at Bryant Park’s Bank of America Winter Village (open through January 2).
Situated on Central Park West, the Columbus Circle holiday market runs from November 29 to December 24, and the indoor Grand Central Holiday Fair is open now through Christmas Eve.
Say hi to Santa at Macy’s
Macy's elaborate Santaland is a stunner of a scene, full of Christmas trees, elves, toy trains and snow-filled wonder. Still, visiting the big guy looks a little bit different this year: for social-distancing purposes, he’s available by reservation only, which open at 5:30am for visits five days out, and masks are required for everyone, even Mr. Claus himself.
Special-needs accommodations are available upon request, as are Santas of different ethnicities – as the store’s site proclaims, “We believe that Santa is all things to all people who find joy in his kindness.”
Visit a botanic garden for a COVID-friendly holiday experience
Four of the city's five boroughs have spectacular garden-centric light shows this year.
It’s a bit of a trek to get there, but the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx has one of the city's great Christmas traditions. Now in its 30th year, 2020’s Holiday Train Show features a model-train track winding its way past 175 iconic sites in miniature, from the Statue of Liberty to the Brooklyn Bridge, made from natural materials like cinnamon sticks and lotus pods.
As an accompaniment, an after-hours event called NYBG Glow also takes place on select nights. A colorful installation covering 1.5 miles of ground, it also includes music and dancing, plus food and drinks courtesy of the garden’s outdoor bars and the Bronx Night Market Holiday Pop-Up, a local favorite for artisan cuisine from 20-plus countries.
The train show is now open and runs through January 23, while NYBG Glow begins November 24 and runs on select nights through January 22.
New this year is Lightscape at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, an immersive outing that involves, among other things, a mile-long trail with illuminated with art installations, light sculptures, and projected poems by Jacqueline Woodson; colorful displays augmenting the surrounding landscape and a 98-foot long cathedral-style tunnel, all set to music and featuring more than a million lights. Lightscape is now open and runs on select evenings through January 9.
Fully vaccinated visitors don’t have to wear masks outside, and those who aren’t fully vaxxed must wear them inside and out, while everyone over the age of 2 has to wear them indoors. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination is required to enter indoor areas for those 12 and up.
Running through January 9 at Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, the NYC Winter Lantern Festival boasts projection-mapping, food vendors, a DJ, and, of course, dozens of handcrafted and painstakingly painted lanterns – peacocks, dragons, caged birds and more – across eight acres of ground. To enter any indoor spaces, face masks are required and those ages 12 and up must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination.
It’s not technically a botanic garden, but the lantern festival also has a holiday-lights event at the Queens County Farm Museum, with lanterns shaped like flowers, tractors and farm animals. It opens November 25 and runs through January 9. Proof of vaccination is required for any indoor activities; outside, unvaccinated guests must wear masks and practice social-distancing.
Cram in with the Times Square crowds on New Year’s Eve
The Times Square ball drop is just one of many options here for ringing in the New Year here, famous though it may be. But if you’re determined to join the masses and check it off your bucket list, there are a few things you should know.
First things first: The perimeter of Times Square is barricaded for the evening, and there are no bathrooms inside – space is available on a first-come, first-served basis, and there are so many people you’ll lose your spot if you leave. Once you’re in, you’re in, so plan accordingly. The ball drops just before midnight at Broadway and 43rd Street, and performances begin at 6pm; revelers tend to start rolling in a few hours in advance.
This year, proof of full vaccination is required for everyone ages 5 and up; younger unvaccinated kids need to be accompanied by a vaccinated adult. Those ineligible for the vaccine due to disability must show proof of a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours and wear masks for the duration.
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