New York City, Christmas in

New York City, Christmas in

A number of New Yorkers and New York City customs have played an important role in the development of the American Christmas. Several nineteenth-century New Yorkers helped to bring Santa Claus into being. In more recent times New York City has become an important destination for Christmas shoppers and tourists. Finally, at least one of the city's Christmas traditions, Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, has become a nationally televised event announcing the start of the Christmas season.

Birth of Santa Claus

Most researchers agree that Santa Claus bears a suspicious resemblance to the European gift bringer St. Nicholas. This resemblance is no coincidence, in spite of the fact that Dutch and German immigrants to the American colonies don't appear to have brought with them much of their St. Nicholas folklore. The early American writer Washington Irving (1783-1859) gave St. Nicholas an important position in New York's Dutch community in his satirical book A Historyof New York (1809). In 1822 one of Irving's friends, Clement C. Moore (1779-1863), a languages professor at New York's General Theological Seminary, used elements of Irving's portrayal of St. Nicholas in a poem of his own. Entitled "A Visit from St. Nicholas," the poem describes a Christmas gift bringer who rides through the night skies on Christmas Eve in a magic sleigh pulled by flying reindeer and enters homes via the chimney. Though Moore called the gift bringer "St. Nicholas," the American public soon dubbed the pot-bellied, pipe-smoking man "Santa Claus." Moore's description suggests that St. Nicholas was smaller than life-sized, in fact, an elf. In the latter part of the nineteenth century Harper's Weekly illustrator Thomas Nast (1840-1902) published a series of prints depicting Santa Claus. Nast settled on depicting him as a life-sized, portly old man with a long, white beard and a pipe. This description seized the public's imagination and became part of Santa's official image.

In 1897 yet another New Yorker, this time an eight-year-old girl named Virginia O'Hanlon, helped Americans to settle some of their metaphysical questions concerning the national gift bringer. She wrote a letter to a local newspaper called the New York Sun asking the newspaper editor to tell her whether or not Santa Claus was real. Virginia's letter and the newspaper's response have become beloved bits of American Christmas lore. The often-quoted phrase, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," comes from the paper's editorial response, written by reporter Francis P. Church.

Macy's Parade

As Santa Claus became an important part of American Christmas folklore he was drafted into the service of many commercial ventures. For example, he plays an important role in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, begun in 1924. Macy's started the parade as a means of attracting shoppers to its stores and extending the Christmas shopping season as far back as Thanksgiving. The classic Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street (1947) boosted the parade's fame by showing shots of the parade during the movie's opening scenes. Nationwide television coverage followed. In this manner the parade worked its way from an event of local importance to a national icon of the start of the holiday season. The parade's trademark feature consists of a series of enormous balloons in a wide variety of fun shapes, including those of cartoon characters and animals. Traditionally Santa Claus brings up the rear of the parade. The parade begins at 77th Street and Central Park West and ends at Macy's, located in Herald Square at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and 34th Street. For New Yorkers, Santa's arrival in Herald Square kicks off the start of the holiday shopping season.

Window Displays

In addition to their reputation for quantity and quality of goods, a number of New York stores are famous for their Christmas store window displays. The more well known department stores announce opening dates for their windows, which often pre-date Thanksgiving, and people trying to get the first glimpses of these magnificent tableaux may crowd the pavement outside the stores on these days. Indeed, thousands line up to see the windows at Lord and Taylor - located on Fifth Avenue at 38th Street - which often feature mechanized, moving displays.

Rockefeller Center

Other New York City Christmas sites and decorations that have become familiar to the public at large include the Christmas tree and skating rink at Rockefeller Center. Over the years Rockefeller Center has become an important destination for the city's Christmas tourists. In 1996, half a million people per weekend visited the site.

The first Rockefeller Center tree, erected in 1931, measured only 12 feet high. It was put up on the empty lot by the men at work constructing the new complex of buildings, some say out of gratitude for having a job during the Depression. In 1933 the owners of the completed Rockefeller Center decided to carry on the tradition of the yearly tree. The tradition has been going strong since then. Designers have tried various tree-decorating schemes over the years. In 1933, strings of blue and white lights ornamented the tree. Another year only floodlights were used. During World War II, ornaments took the place of lights, which were eliminated in order to meet wartime blackout requirements. The use of ornaments was discontinued, however, when it was discovered that high winds, enhanced by the wind tunnel effect created by the surrounding tall buildings, could easily dislodge them from the tree. Decorators realized the danger posed by ornaments the year they festooned the tree with aluminum icicles. During strong winds the tree menaced people passing below by discharging volleys of the spear-like icicles. These days approximately 30,000 electric lights adorn the ornament-free tree, which is topped by a 60-pound star.

Rockefeller Center's landscape and garden team search New York state and New England for potential Christmas trees throughout the year. In order to find a Norway Spruce - the preferred variety - that has grown to about 70 or 80 feet, the team may employ the services of a helicopter. The trees usually come from privately owned properties rather than forests, as this variety is not native to the region. Once the ideal tree is spotted, the owners are approached with an offer to sell their tree. Many feel it an honor to have their tree selected for Rockefeller Center. The final selection is made by mid-summer. At the end of the Christmas season, the tree is turned into mulch and recycled into the earth.

The first few Christmas trees at Rockefeller Center were erected in the middle of the sunken plaza. In 1936 the plaza was transformed into a winter ice-skating rink. Nowadays the tree is set up between the rink and the General Electric building (formerly the RCA building).

Other Decorations

A number of the city's well-known buildings and institutions decorate for the holidays. The corporation that owns the Empire State Building illuminates the upper floors of the building with red and green lights during the month of December. The Humanities and Social Sciences Library of the New York City public library system - located at Fifth Avenue between 41st and 42nd Streets - shows its holiday spirit by placing two 60-pound wreaths around the necks of the magnificent stone lions that adorn the steps to the building. New Yorkers have quickly become accustomed to the giant snowflake that dangles above the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. The snowflake stands approximately two-and-one-half stories in height and contains 6,000 light bulbs. This seasonal decoration first appeared in 1984. Ritzy Park Avenue puts on its own show for Christmas, decking the trees planted in the Avenue's meridians with white and gold lights. The display stretches for about two miles, beginning around 48th Street and ending at 96th Street.


Each Christmas season the Rockettes, a troupe of female dancers, put on a special Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall. This tradition dates back to 1933. The Nativity scene calls for real camels and donkeys, which don't always behave on stage as planned. Each year they perform their dance of the toy soldiers, which ends with the toy soldiers, all in a row, falling over backwards like a set of dominoes.

Since 1954 New Yorkers have also enjoyed yearly performances of The Nutcracker by the New York City Ballet Company. Those who prefer song to dance may attend the Messiah Sing-In at Avery Fisher Hall. At this event the audience takes a stab at singing Handel's oratorio themselves. This tradition dates back to the 1960s.

Many New Yorkers and out-of-towners celebrate Christmas by taking in a Broadway show. Indeed New York's justly famous theater district sells more tickets at Christmas time than at any other time of year.

New Year's Eve

Finally, many Americans close out the holiday season by tuning into another New York City event: the large street party at Times Square on New Year's Eve. The climax of the party comes at midnight, when a large, illuminated ball atop a pole standing on the roof of the former Times Building begins to drop. The fall lasts 60 seconds and marks the last minute of the old year and the exact beginning of the new year. This event has been broadcast on television since 1943. In recent years about half a million people have gathered in Times Square on New Year's Eve to wait for the magic moment when the ball drops.

Further Reading

Pool, Daniel. Christmas in New York. New York. Seven Stories Press, 1997.

Web Sites

The Rockefeller Center web site offers information about its Christmas tree and skating rink at:

Radio City Music Hall's web site contains information about its Christmastime attractions at:
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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