Christmas in New York: traditions old and new

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and the most wonderful place to spend it is New York City, thanks to countless movies and tv shows that show New York in its most festive, most Christmas-y light. Fun fact: I found Santa Claus at his day job with the NYPD:

NYPD Santa Claus New York Police Department

I’ve had a sampling of holiday season in New York when I visited around Thanksgiving a few years back, but nothing prepared me for the wonder and excitement of visiting at Christmas. I was only in town for a few days, but made the most of it by jamming in as many holiday traditions as I could find, both old and new.

New York City Christmas tree sidewalk

Old tradition: The tree at Rockefeller Center

If you don’t live in New York, a lot of the romance of the holiday is tied to the massive tree and skating rink at Rockefeller Center. It’s worth a visit, but I’d recommend going very early or very late to avoid the crowd. A golden Prometheus watches over skaters as they take their short spins on the ice. It’s quite lovely, but it’s also very, very crowded, loud, and in my opinion, expensive.

The area around Rockefeller Center has loads of Christmas spirit, don’t miss the massive decorations on Sixth Avenue! You’re sure to find all kinds of fun people jockeying for position to take the ultimate Christmas card photo.

New tradition: The tree and village at Bryant Park

A delightful alternative is the giant tree and village at Bryant Park, next to the Main Branch of the New York Public Library. It’s still crowded, but is in more of an open space, giving people more areas to explore, or, if need be, sit down. There’s a much larger skating rink, too, and overall, provides good value for Christmas dollar. The rink is relatively close to the Empire State Building, and on clear days, the view is extraordinary. Don’t miss the NYPL lions, Patience and Fortitude, decked out in their Christmas finest:

Old tradition: Radio City Christmas Spectacular

I’m not sure what’s more iconic – the tree at Rockefeller Centre or the precision kicklines of the Rockettes. This was my second time seeing the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, and it was just as thrilling as the first. Real-life skaters on real ice, ballet-dancing bears, a 3D sleigh ride through the city, and sparkly costumes galore. There is no better inspiration for your at-home dancing than to see the Rockettes get into formation and high kick their way to a big finish.

New tradition: Naked Holidays NYC

Naked Holidays NYC is exactly as advertised. I had seen it listed in Time Out’s suggestions for offbeat and alternative Christmas experiences in New York and it exceeded my expectations delightfully. It is 100% mature subject matter, full frontal nudity, ribald humour, roller skating and there’s lots of alcohol on hand. It’s simply something that must be seen to be believed.

Old tradition: Lights on the Empire State Building

The Empire State Building is one of the many New York landmarks all decked out for the holidays. They take it to the next level with a dazzling light display that you can see all over Midtown. 2016 update: Check out the ESB’s lighting schedule for your visit! 

Empire State Building lobby Christmas decorations

New tradition: Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights

Every year, the bar seems to be raised for outrageous Christmas lights and outdoor decorations. I can’t imagine another place on Earth with the concentration of wild Christmas displays you’ll find in Brooklyn.

For this adventure, I took a tour with A Slice of Brooklyn (where I took a great pizza tour earlier this year). During the holidays, they offer a Christmas lights and cannoli tour of Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights neighbourhood. To quote myself (from a tweet from the other day), these light displays will make your neighbour’s Christmas lights look like a small garbage fire.

Old tradition: Central Park in the snow

I was lucky enough to get some snow during my stay. There’s really no way to plan for it and you definitely can’t order if up, so it’s pretty amazing when it happens. As the snow tapered off, a park I’ve loved in the three other seasons came alive in new and wondrous ways. Do not miss the joy of walking in Central Park in freshly-fallen snow.

New tradition: Cronuts in SoHo in the snow

This has been a big year for cronuts and my enjoyment of them. In our planning for New York, we worked out the logistics of obtaining the real thing at Dominique Ansel in SoHo. Our research indicated we’d have to get in line between 5 and 6 am for a reasonable chance. Then, a few days of travel caught up with us and the idea didn’t seem quite as great. On our last day in New York, we decided we’d give the line a try and go with our Plan B for breakfast if it took too long.

When we arrived at 6:45 am, there were all of 25 people in line ahead of us. There was a bit of snow on the way, and the consensus (confirmed by staff) was that it kept people away. Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

By 8 am, the snow had arrived and the line started moving. Luckily, the line moved quickly and in a few minutes, the cronuts were mine. The cronut of the month for December 2013 was Valrhona Chocolate Champagne with fresh orange zest and it was worth every minute of the wait.

Overall, I was extra lucky in the snow, because it didn’t interfere with my departure, giving me a perfect capper to my Christmas in New York experience.

Have you been to New York at Christmas? What are your favourite New York Christmas traditions? If you haven’t been, what would you like to see and do in New York at Christmas? 


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