10 best under-the-radar holiday events in New York City

November 30, 2023

Photo courtesy of Winter Lantern Festival.

Holiday magic permeates New York City each year as locals and tourists alike flock to the Fifth Avenue window displays, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, and the many holiday markets. And while tradition is good, it’s also fun to step out of the box and celebrate the holidays with some off-the-beaten-path events (and maybe even start some new traditions). Here are 10 holiday events in NYC that go beyond Manhattan’s classics.

Photo courtesy of Kyle Froman

The Brooklyn Nutcracker

George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” is a classic Christmas ballet, and the New York City Ballet Company puts on a beautiful traditional rendition each year. But the Brooklyn Ballet has re-imagined it with a melding of ballet and hip-hop — and it’s set in Brooklyn. “From a mysterious pop and locking Herr Drosselmeyer and a daring hip hop battle scene, to a bohemian Mother Ginger, the characters embark on an enchanting journey from Victorian Flatbush to modern day – with exciting detours through notable Brooklyn landmarks, including a visit to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and a Flatbush Avenue subway platform,” the event’s description writes. The two-hour show takes place at the Brooklyn Ballet in Downtown Brooklyn on Dec. 16 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Photo courtesy of Leandro Justen

The Gingerbread City

Check out an entire city made of gingerbread at the Seaport. This touring show, with stops in London and New York City, features a huge exhibit made by more than 50 NYC architects and artists. New York’s show has teamed up with Balthazar to make the gingerbread. There are also opportunities to join workshops and make your very own gingerbread creation.

And it’s not all fun and games. The exhibit is also designed to tackle the issue of climate change. “The Gingerbread City® contains everything you might expect to see in a real-life city, including residential houses, train stations, bridges, airports, museums, and parks. Inspired by the theme Water in Cities, and comprising five distinct zones: Desert Landscape, Urban Floodplain, Canal City, Frozen Landscape and Underwater + Floating City, the participants have been asked to think about how we can design and build water-sensitive cities and protect this vital resource,” a press release states. The show runs until January 7.

Courtesy of Bucketlisters

Disney’s The Santa Clauses’ Winter Wonderland

Attention, millennials: the rooftop at Pier 17 is being transformed into a winter wonderland inspired by Disney’s “The Santa Clauses” series, which is based on the ‘90s classic “The Santa Clause” starring Tim Allen. Against the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge, guests can enjoy ice skating, cocktails, hot chocolate, a visit with Santa, and more. “Guests will arrive at the North Pole by stepping into Santa’s hallway, lined with candy cane pillars good enough to eat. Follow the holiday spirit, and you’ll discover Santa’s living room, complete with his plush armchair and the chance to cozy up in front of the Clauses’ oversized fireplace.” The pop-up runs until January 7.

Christmas at the Angelika

The East Village’s iconic Angelika Film Center is hosting a month of Wednesday-night holiday movie screenings. All showings are at 7 p.m.
Nov. 29: “Bridget Jones’s Diary”
Dec. 6: “The Holiday”
Dec. 13: “It’s a Wonderful Life”
Dec. 20: “Elf”

Photo Credit: Washington Square Association

Washington Square Park tree lighting

The Rockefeller Center tree takes the spotlight in NYC when it comes to tree lightings, but downtown at Washington Square Park, the Washington Square Association is holding its 99th annual lighting on Dec. 6. Carolers, a brass quartet, and even Santa Claus himself will be on hand to celebrate the season. Later in the month, on Christmas Eve, the Rob Susman Brass Quartet and carolers will be back to bring joy to the park. According to its site, “The Washington Square Association, Inc. founded in 1906, is one of the city’s oldest community organizations. For 93 years, it has sponsored carol singing under the arch.”

Check out more tree lightings around the city here.

Photo: MTA New York City Transit / Marc Hermann on Flickr

Vintage holiday subway rides

The New York Transit Museum’s Holiday Nostalgia Rides are back this season. On Saturdays in December, 1930s subway trains will bring riders back in time. The festive old-school trains operate between 2nd Avenue on the uptown F line and 145th on the downtown D line. Vintage trains are scheduled for December 2, 9, 16, 23, and 30.

Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Big Band Holiday

Lincoln Center is a classic NYC stop during the holiday season as it hosts the New York City Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” and the Philharmonic’s holiday shows like Handel’s “Messiah” and the Holiday in Brass show. But for something a little jazzier — well, a lot jazzier — check out Big Band Holidays. Classics like “Winter Wonderland,” “The Christmas Song,” “Deck the Halls,” and “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” will be performed in jazz style during the performance. After the show, guests get complimentary access to Dizzy’s Club for the Late Night Session at 11:15 p.m. Shows take place December 13-17.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Winter Lantern Festival

Winter Lantern Festival

Over 1,000 handmade Chinese lanterns will light up the Queens County Farm Museum. The exhibit, which also has shows in Atlanta and Washington D.C., runs in NYC through January 7. Take a family-friendly night walk and see spectacular illuminated animals, flowers, and more; the walk takes about 45 minutes. The festival features modern LED lights “embellished by traditionally hand-crafted lantern frames” made of Chinese silk cloth and steel wire. Artisans with more than 20 years of experience created the lanterns.

Check out more holiday light displays around the city here.

Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for Empire State Realty Trust

‘Elf’ takeover at EmpireState Building

Want to feel old? “Elf” starring Will Ferrell turns 20 this year. But instead of lamenting the years gone by, celebrate the milestone birthday of this modern holiday classic at the Empire State Building. NYC’s most iconic building will be decked out in “Elf”-themed decor for the season, including miniature versions of movie scenes in the lobby and a life-size version of Buddy the Elf on the Observatory’s 86th floor. The Observatory’s 80th floor will host screenings of the movie on Dec. 3, 10, and 17, complete with holiday-themed drinks and snacks and full access to the second-floor museum and 86th-floor Observatory.

Lantern Garden by Mandylights. Photo by Liz Ligon.

Lightscape at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

The New York Botanical Garden has its annual holiday train show. But over in Brooklyn, the Botanic Garden has its reimagined Lightscape show, which debuted in 2021. Brand new works of immersive light art are on display throughout the gardens through January 1. Over a million lights cover a one-mile trail on the floor, in the trees, in sculpture form (including a 24-foot-high illuminated Moravian star), and more. This year’s Lightscape features a new playlist with songs by Taylor Swift, Elton John, Philip Glass, Viter Ukrainian Folk Choir, and others, as well as a Brooklyn hip-hop zone celebrating the genre’s 50th anniversary.

“As visitors enter Lightscape, they find fountain sculptures in the pond of the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden. These carefully placed works create a fountain and light show in one of BBG’s most iconic gardens. Trees along the route are illuminated to highlight the beauty of their natural forms. A selection of BBG’s horse chestnut trees features special illuminated art from the Garden’s archives of botanical illustrations,” a press release states.

Check out more light displays around the city here.


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