New York City is the unofficial birthplace of modern Christmas traditions. When the Dutch set sail for New York, their ships were adorned with images of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors and children. As America was settled and New York grew, the ideas of winter holidays were mixed into new traditions. St. Nicholas became a jolly old man ready to deliver toys to all the good children on Christmas Eve. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in New York City in December, you should try some of these historical holiday traditions.
Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
Today millions of people watch the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree lighting every year on television. The specialty picked spruce trees range from 70 to 100 feet (the tallest was in 1999) and are elegantly decorated. The first Rockefeller Christmas tree came from much humbler beginnings. In 1931, during the Great Depression when most Americans were out of work, construction on the Rockefeller Center began. Workers pooled their money to buy a 20-foot tree for the community to share. As each man collected his paycheck, he added a homemade ornament, such as strings of cranberry or garlands made of paper that his family had made. The tradition carried on the next year, and by 1933, Rockefeller Center was open and the first “official” tree was lit. Two years later the ice skating rink was added below. The tradition has managed to adapt with the times. In 1942 at the start of World War II, three smaller trees had to replace one big one. In 1944 and 1945, the Rockefeller Christmas tree had to go unlit because of blackout ordinances. Each January the Christmas tree is donated, most recently becoming lumber to build homes for Habitat for Humanity. If you’re in New York City, you can find Rockefeller Plaza between West 48th and 51st street and 5th and 6th avenue. This years tree will be on display until January 7, 2019.
Holiday Window Displays
Another New York City holiday tradition is viewing the window displays that line the many shopping districts. During the late half of the 19th century, stores began to utilize their first-floor windows as a way to promote the products they were selling and bring more customers through their doors. Of course, this caused stores to put more and more efforts into their displays in order to outshine their neighbors, especially during busy times such as the holidays. In 1874, Macy’s made history by creating a scene from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin with porcelain dolls in their New York window. People flocked to see the display and a new tradition was born. Stores all over New York City now use their space not to advertise a product, but to entertain and amaze tourists walking by in hopes their brand will be the most memorable. Modern displays involve rotating platforms, animatronic pieces, and life-size figurines. Make sure to pass by Macy’s on 34th Street and Saks Fifth Avenue for some of the most famous displays.
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
A relatively more recent holiday tradition for New Yorkers is walking the streets of the Dyker Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn to view the decorated houses. Each one is decked in lights and lawn ornaments, leaving no space bare. Many recreate scenes from famous Christmas performances, such as The Night Before Christmas or The Grinch. No one remembers exactly why it started, or when it spread from being a few blocks to an entire neighborhood. The best guess is the early 1980s, since by 1985 there were advertisements for guided tours printed in newspapers. Today professionals are hired to design the displays, costing homeowners anywhere from 1,000 to 20,000 dollars each year. Two of the most well-known houses are across-the-street neighbors on 84th street between 11th and 12th avenue. One house’s theme is always Santa Clause, and the others is the Nutcracker. Each year the designs become more elaborate and creative, unofficially competing in a expensive, but beautiful neighborhood game. Tour the Dyker Heights neighborhood this December to see just how far the limits of Christmas decorating can be pushed.
If you’re traveling to New York, take a copy of our New York City 5 Boroughs Street Map and our Quick Access Manhattan Map. Both are clearly labeled to quickly guide you from destination to destination.