Throughout history, as the days get shorter and the weather cooler in the Northern Hemisphere, people have steeled themselves against the coming winter by holding festivals of light. From the Pagan Yule celebration of the ancient Germanic people, to Saturnalia celebrated by the Romans, and continuing through today’s celebrations of Hanukkah, Christmas, and Diwali, we try to drive away the dark days ahead with revelry and light. I find that New York City is at its most magical during the month of December, and from the influx of tourists during the last two weeks of the month, many others do as well. For those of us who live in the city, the trick is to see the most popular tourist sites earlier in the month or on an off-day or –time, while appreciating the lights and decorations everywhere in the city, especially primarily residential areas seldom packed with visitors.
One attraction definitely in the category of those you want to try to see early in the season, and not on a weekend, is the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Lit this year on December 3rd, and remaining lit until the 31st, these dates bookend perhaps the worst times and places to be during this season, in my opinion – the lighting of the tree attracts tens of thousands of people to a small midtown area, snarling traffic for hours, and of course Times Square on New Year’s Eve is even worse. Seeing the magnificent tree and decorations at Rockefeller Center in the few weeks after the tree lighting is definitely worth it. The tree this year is an 85 foot Norway spruce from Pennsylvania, lit by 45,000 LED lights – the ultimate story of a small town resident hitting the big time in NYC. The presentation of the tree from Fifth Avenue is theatrical perfection; a series of trumpeters framing the tree over the picturesque skating rink and iconic statue of Prometheus.
Saks Fifth Avenue is across from the tree, and has a new “Enchanted Experience” light show this year, which requires 71,000 lights and six 3-D projectors. The show, synched with holiday music, plays several times per hour after dark. Their windows this year celebrate the Art Deco era when Saks was founded, and a display in the store features a tribute to the Rockettes, who can of course be seen in action nearby at Radio City Music Hall (a Deco masterpiece). Saks’ windows this year continue the Art Deco theme, with classic fairy tales told in that style.
A person could spend an entire day viewing all the holiday window displays at department stores around the city, but for the average New Yorker, they are seen in passing while getting from one area to another. Several are worth a stop, though – Barney’s has been “Baz Dazzled” by director Baz Luhrmann (and occasionally has live ice skating in the north window), Bergdorf Goodman has a “Holidays on Ice” theme, Bloomingdale’s shows its brown shopping bags in scenes around the world, and Henri Bendel uses Al Hirschfeld caricatures to create celebrity-focused windows. At Macy’s, after seeing the classic “Yes, Virginia” windows, you can check out the line for Santa Land to see if the wait is not too extreme. Macy’s of course is the setting for the ultimate ironic New York City real estate story, “Miracle on 34th Street,” where a little girl can’t wait to give up her apartment on Central Park West (with a view of the Thanksgiving parade and Central Park) for a house in the suburbs!
One doesn’t have to do all their holiday shopping in these huge department stores, however, since holiday shopping markets pop up all over the city during the month of December. From “Sell by the L” in Bushwick and Artist and Fleas in Williamsburg, to the market in the Bohemian Beer Hall in Astoria and Flea and Food in Long Island City, all boroughs are represented in these unique experiences, featuring locally made and unique products. Some of the best known holiday markets in Manhattan are those in Grand Central Station, Union Square, Columbus Circle, Chelsea Market, and Bryant Park.
If in Bryant Park at night, you have a terrific view of the Empire State Building. I can’t find any information on whether they will do it again this year, but last year leading up to Christmas they had a holiday light show synchronized to music on a local radio station. The skating rink at Bryant Park is my favorite one to actually skate on in the city – in part because it is free (although skate rental is $15) but also because it is generally less crowded than the Rockefeller Center or Central Park rinks.
There are so many opportunities to see something special in December – from the Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx to seeing the Neapolitan crèche in the Metropolitan Museum, from the Time Warner Center light and music show (Holidays under the Stars) to the lighting of the world’s largest menorah at Grand Army Plaza at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street (while perhaps not the largest, Prospect Park in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza also has quite a large menorah). One of the most elegantly impressive signs of the season is along Park Avenue from 54th to 97th Streets, where 104 fir trees covered in white lights line the malls running through the middle of the avenue. Originally started after World War II to commemorate those who lost their lives in the conflict, they now serve as a symbol for peace, and fit in well with the beautiful quiet residential areas north of 72nd Street.
For all the special things to see, however, my favorite part of this season is experiencing the unexpected decorations near where I live, or in a random neighborhood I am walking through. Walking down East End Avenue on a late night alone and coming across the solitary tree lit in Carl Schurtz Park, or seeing the glowing menorah in someone’s window – those are the moments that remind me what a gift it is to live in this city, which shines so brightly in December that it allows me to shore up my own inner light to defend against the dark and cold winter months.