Ice-skating rinks ringing with the sound of laughter, towering trees festooned with fairy lights, shop windows stuffed with theatrical displays, Santas with bells on every street corner... For kids, there’s nothing quite like Christmas in New York.
New York City is a dream for young children at any time of the year. Buildings loom overhead, seemingly poking holes in the sky, and the footpath rumbles with trains hidden deep beneath the ground. In every direction are new faces and attractive diversions: baseball games, hot-dog stands, and superheroes strutting through Times Square and posing for photographs.
All this excitement only seems amplified at Christmas. It’s as though the city has eaten a bag of sugar and turned hyperactive, garlanding everything with tinsel and scheduling so many events it would take a lifetime to get through them all. It’s a dizzying, thrilling experience, a psychedelic season of Santa’s elves emerging from the subway onto snow-swept avenues.
But where do you begin? How do you take part without becoming overwhelmed? Well, you can start with our top 10 suggestions for entertaining the kids in the city that never sleeps.
Find all the Christmas trees
There’s no clearer sign that Christmas is on its way than the profusion of pine trees that springs up the day after Thanksgiving in street stalls around the city, waiting to be dragged home. The mother of all trees was lit on 28 November during a ceremony at Rockefeller Center, where it will remain on display until 9pm 7 January. But lesser-known trees are just as noteworthy. Check out the gorgeous spruce in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is adorned with silk-robed angels and surrounded by an 18th-century Neapolitan Nativity scene. In the American Museum of Natural History, the tree is decorated with more than 800 intricate origami animals and volunteers are on standby to teach the paper-folding technique to younger visitors. Go make a dinosaur.
Visit the window displays
At Christmas, shop windows are more than an opportunity to advertise merchandise. In fact, the products almost seem irrelevant. What’s important is the spectacle as department stores vie to present the most elaborate installations. Past themes include miniature 19th-century theatres, Peanuts and animatronic teddy bears. The best are at Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s on 59th Street, Macy’s Herald Square, Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys on Madison Avenue and Tiffany & Co. on Fifth Avenue, where months of work is poured into a single tableau.
Admire GingerBread Lane
Chef Jon Lovitch spends the entire year crafting his obsession from tonnes of sugar and royal icing. GingerBread Lane started out as 12 gingerbread houses baked in Kansas City but has grown into a village so enormous that it has broken Guinness World Records. This year's display includes biscuity shopfronts with names like Pickles and Ice Cream Pregnancy Boutique and 8 Maids a Milking Dairy and Milk Bar. Line up mid-January to claim a piece of this sweet real estate.
Watch The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center
For slightly older kids, every year the New York City Ballet performs George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center. Since it premiered in 1954, this holiday production has been an obsession for many – as well as for the ballet company, which draws on its resources to present the most dramatic show possible. Choreographed by Balanchine, the dance remains astonishingly beautiful and the special effects – including a one-tonne Christmas tree that grows 12 metres high right before your eyes – make this Tchaikovsky classic worth revisiting again and again.
Hitting the rinks is a New York holiday must and there have never been more opportunities to pull on skates. The most famous rink is at Rockefeller Center right alongside the tree, though famous also means crowded: arrive early or reserve a Breakfast with Santa session to skip the lines. Other rinks include the Winter Village at Bryant Park, just down from Times Square, and the Trump Wollman Rink at the southern end of Central Park, which offers a truly spectacular winter backdrop and learn-to-skate classes. And here’s a tip: at the northern end of Central Park, the Trump Lasker Rink is less busy but just as much fun. Go for the ice hockey and then walk around the Harlem Meer, a small lake that freezes over when it gets really icy.
Explore Macy’s Santaland
Ever since the release of Miracle on 34th Street in 1947, Santa has basically lived at Macy’s Herald Square, one of the world’s largest department stores. More specifically, he has lived in Santaland, a sprawling environment of elves, reindeer and ice-skating penguins that takes over the eighth floor of the store every holiday season. Santa reigns from his throne in the middle, greeting kids as they step up to whisper their wishes. But there’s plenty more to keep everyone occupied for several hours. Parents can prepare themselves by reading The Santaland Diaries, David Sedaris’s riotous essay about working here as a Christmas elf.
Shop at the holiday markets
Every year, Union Square Holiday Market transforms Union Square Park into a miniature village of more than 150 wooden stalls, each stuffed with so much delicious weirdness it’s easy to lose several hours poking about. Where else can you find caramel-covered pretzels alongside Muppet-style puppets of iconic figures? Much of it is handmade and sourced locally (look for the Artisan Pledge symbol). Beyond the candy and cookies, kids will be interested in a craft studio run by the Children’s Museum of the Arts. Smaller holiday markets can also be found in Bryant Park and at Columbus Circle but Union Square reigns supreme.
Be dazzled by the Christmas lights in Brooklyn
Considering that most residents of Manhattan live in apartment buildings, domestic Christmas displays on the island are few and far between. Over in Brooklyn, however, is Dyker Heights, a suburban Italian-American neighbourhood that takes the holiday so seriously, it’s sometimes referred to as “Dyker Lights”. Some houses are truly jaw-dropping, lit up like neon signs advertising good cheer. It’s possible to visit Dyker Heights yourself on foot but A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours runs three-hour trips that highlight the best displays, some of which are worth tens of thousands of dollars. New Yorkers never do things in half-measures.
See The Radio City Rockettes
Performed annually since the 1930s, The Radio City Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular is brash, razzle-dazzle New York at its showiest. In a production that makes many Broadway musicals look small and haphazard, the stage transforms with prancing reindeer and flying Saint Nicks as snowflakes fall from the ceiling. But the real attraction is the 36 Radio City Rockettes and their synchronised precision high kicks. These beloved dancers somehow keep up the pace for multiple shows a day. If the Christmas Spectacular is not enough, join a Stage Door Tour to go behind the scenes. Or kids can learn some of the show’s choreography in Rockettes 101, a one-hour dance class run by a Rockette.