8 Ways to Change up Your NYC Holiday Traditions

Courtesy of Prospect Park
Courtesy of Prospect Park

All of the movies are right: New York City during the holidays is pretty magical. But it’s also chaotic and overly crowded, with iconic destinations like the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree and Central Park’s skating rinks overrun with tourists. So this year, mix up your holiday traditions with some more unexpected activities in less touristy corners of the city. If you can’t bear to part with your annual trip to Radio City Music Hall or if it’s just not the holidays unless you’re elbowing your way through Fifth Avenue crowds, consider these ideas additions, not replacements. And maybe next year you can convince Mom to skip the Rockettes.

Instead of: Ice skating in Central Park
There are a multitude of reasons why Brooklyn’s Prospect Park is superior to Central Park (fight me), but Lakeside, a 26-acre restoration project that brought two outdoor ice skating rinks to the park when it opened in 2014, is up there on the list. With just the trees and the lake as your background, it’s easy to feel like you’ve escaped the city altogether. Enjoy a cup of hot cocoa at the rinkside Bluestone Cafe or venture into Park Slope for a Rolf’s-like lunch at Cafe Steinhof. Skate rental is $8, while admission is $7.50 during the week and $11 on the weekends. They also host skate school, hockey leagues, and curling.

NY Handmade Collective’s Holiday Handmade Cavalcade | JJ Ignotz Photography

Buy your gifts at a makers market in Brooklyn or Queens

Instead of: The Holiday Shops at Bryant Park
Multiple dates
During the holiday season, you can find a pop-up market in nearly every neighborhood. Skip the big players, which can be overrun by tourists and often feature the same brands, and head to an artists’ market a little farther afield. In Queens, Astoria Market is taking over the Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden for select Sundays in December (December 8 & 15) with vendors peddling baked, vintage, and handmade goods. Also in Astoria, the Queens Craft Brigade brings together more than 25 makers selling art, jewelry, clothes, and more on December 8 and 15. This year, the NY Handmade Collective’s Holiday Handmade Cavalcade returns to the Brooklyn Historical Society (December 7-8) as well as Chelsea Market (December 9-15) with an array of handmade wares from local artisans.

Enjoy a menorah or tree lighting in a park

Instead of: The tree lighting at Rockefeller Center 
Multiple dates
The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is about as iconic as it gets when it comes to the holidays in New York City. But taking part in the tree lighting is more chaotic and crowded than the 4/5/6 platform in Grand Central during rush hour when the trains are delayed. Spare yourself the headache and see a spectacle of lights somewhere else. Washington Square Park hosts an annual tree lighting that’s much more low-key, with caroling and a performance by the Rob Susman Brass Quartet. This year, it takes place on Wednesday, December 4 at 6pm. And to celebrate the start of Hanukkah, head to Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza for the lighting of the borough’s largest menorah. There will be a concert on the first night (December 22), and hot latkes for the lighting each of the following seven nights.

Instead of: The Christmas Spectacular starring the Radio City Rockettes
December 12-14
Swap Radio City Music Hall and the high-kicking Rockettes for a bit of “yuletide delight and mayhem” in Brooklyn. Australian cabaret performer, singer, and actress Meow Meow makes her Brooklyn Academy of Music debut with A Very Meow Meow Holiday Show, a sharply funny and “high octane” performance that just might leave you sparkling. The show is a “meditation on the perils, pleasures, and actual point of the season,” that dazzles with “exquisite and original music, glitter for days, and hilarious, biting satire.” There are only four performances over three days, so book your tickets now before they sell out. Priced at $25 to $45, this is also a very affordable new holiday tradition.

Snowflake molasses cookies at Ovenly | Mark Weinberg @markweinbergnyc

Satisfy your sweet tooth with a cookie crawl through NYC’s best bakeries

Instead of: Hosting a cookie exchange party at home 
Get yourself out of hosting yet another party -- and baking yet another batch of cookies -- by putting together a cookie crawl instead of a cookie exchange. Spend a Saturday hopping through some of the city’s best bakeries to sample classic holiday treats. Here are just a few to add to your list: gingerbread and Christmas tree doughnuts at Doughnut Plant, the peppermint bark cake or the peppermint pretzel snap at Milk Bar, the buche de noel at Patisserie Tomoko, the peppermint brownies at Baked, the Christmas Morning or Gingerbread Brownstone cereal from Dominique Ansel Kitchen, gingerbread from Two Little Red Hens, snowflake molasses cookies and peppermint cake from Ovenly... we could go on, but we’re getting a sugar high just from thinking about all these sweets.

Instead of: Feast of the Seven Fishes
Tuesday, December 24
If you celebrate Christmas Eve with the Italian-American tradition of spending all day in the kitchen cooking a Feast of the Seven Fishes for the entire family, give yourself a break this year, and opt for a meatier meal. Cote, which combines Korean barbeque with an American steakhouse, hosts a Feast of Seven Steaks featuring a seven-course steak tasting menu paired with a variety of Korean sides for $95 per person.

JMT Media /NYC Winter Lantern Festival

Instead of: The Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden 
Through January 12
Trade miniature trains and a cityscape made of plants for a whimsical world of glowing lanterns at Staten Island’s Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden. For the second year, more than 1,000 lanterns will transform eight acres of the garden into a world of luminescent art for the NYC Winter Lantern Festival. Last year, there was a 150-foot dragon and 50 pandas, but prepare for new and exciting displays this year. Weekend/holiday admission for kids aged 3-12 is $17, adults are $25, and seniors and students are $20. 

Ring in the new year with fireworks or a midnight run

Instead of: Watching the ball drop in Times Square
Tuesday, December 31
Like every other day of the year, New Yorkers know to stay far away from Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Ring in 2020 with something more lowkey and family-friendly: midnight fireworks and a concert at Grand Army Plaza, at the northern tip of Prospect Park. The free event is now in its 40th year, which may make it Brooklyn’s longest running New Year’s party. Or, if you want to start off the new year as a beacon of health, join the New York Road Runners for a 4-mile midnight run through Central Park. Don’t worry, it starts with fireworks, so you’ll still get your light show.