NYC’s Best Trees, Santas, Window Displays, Pop-Up Markets, And Nutcrackers

Cirque du Soleil at Bloomingdale's, photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

I feel it already. In the long of wake of superstorm Sandy, this holiday season is going to be as bittersweet as a holiday can be. I know I’m going to go along with annual rituals, but I know there will be times when, despite all the fun my children are having, my thoughts will be elsewhere—in some emotional welter where appreciation for the best parts of my life are inseparable from my challenges and travails—and I know I’ll be thinking about the people impacted most directly and tragically by Sandy. But wherever you were during the storm and wherever you are now, there’s a lot of joy to be had around the city during the holidays. I hope this annotated list of mine gives you and your family some holiday cheer.

Christmas Trees

Of course, all round-ups of must-see Christmas trees in NYC have to begin with the Rockefeller Center tree overlooking the skating rink. Inevitably, I will see it at some point during the holidays, and I’ll enjoy it as much as I always do, especially with my gasping children by my side. Like every year, I’ll read the accounts of how big the tree is, where it came from, and how it gets to plaza—and be duly impressed. Lit at the end of last month, the tree is decorated with more than 30,000 multi-colored energy efficient lights and topped with an mammoth Swarovski star.

Another impressive tree I enjoy making an annual family pilgrimage to see is the origami wonder at the American Museum of Natural History. This year’s tree, which opened to the public on November 19, takes its inspiration from the Museum’s famous collections of dioramas and new exhibits on spiders, bioluminescence, and whales. The 500 pieces of origami are sectioned into groups like “a pride of lions” or “a school of fish,” all of which take place under “the galaxy of stars.”

Other locations for Christmas trees that never disappoint: Dante Park (near Lincoln Center), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Park Avenue, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the South Street Seaport, and Washington Square Park.

Holiday Windows

I’m sure I hold holiday windows to a much higher standard than is fair. I go to Macy’s for a classic treatment of spinning and bowing figurines, but I’ve come to expect bold creativity and visual wit from Barneys, Bloomingdale’s, Saks, and Bergdorf Goodman. Barneys, who let Lady Gaga turn the windows into her personal play space last year, is dipping its toe into family fare this year. Sort of. The store is an animated short called “Electric Holiday,” set at a fashion show in Paris, with notable fashionista spectators and even more notable runway models, the Disney gang, including Minnie Mouse, Daisy Duck, Cruella Deville, and Goofy, who is reportedly wearing Dolce & Gabbana.

Other 2012 themes: Cirque du Soleil (Bloomingdale’s); snow (Saks); and the Jazz Age (Bergdorf). The fun part, of course, is to do some window browsing and decide for yourself who outdid everyone else and themselves. Last year, Lady Gaga’s window got a lot of attention, but I was more dazzled by the ethereal artistry of Bergdorf’s “Carnival of the Animals.” You never know.


The qualities I look for in a Santa are looks and attitude. I want him rotund and I want him jolly—just like in popular myth. If you, too, are fussy about your Santa, the best way to track down what you’re looking for may be to share some intelligence with your friends. When my kids were younger, we were in love with the Santa at ABC Home & Carpet. He was right from central casting and, from what I can tell, they still have him! Not that I’m subtly telling you to avoid the long lines at Macy’s. Visiting Santaland there is a part of many childhoods—though I’m not sure it has to happen every year.

For a very different and non-traditional Santa experience, I recommend Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! in Times Square. This attraction features a “Reverse Santa,” who is smaller than most children and who sits in the laps of the visitors for classic holiday photos. Presumably, you can still tell him what you want.

Other local venues that often have a Santa on hand during the holidays include Bloomingdale’s, South Street Seaport, Rock Center Café, Central Park’s Belvedere Castle, and the Shops at Columbus Circle.

The Steadfast Tin Soldier at Puppetworks

Pop-Up Markets

Every holiday season, tourists and native New Yorkers alike come out in droves to check out all of the goodies made available at holiday pop-up markets throughout the city. What’s great about pop-up shopping is convenience, originality, and quality. These are the markets to look for those serendipitous one-of-a-kind finds. In that spirit, expect the Holiday Fair at Grand Central Terminal to include lots of wonderful handmade items, be they crafts, art, children’s clothing, handbags, or jewelry. Another popular market, atUnion Square, hosts lots of food vendors in addition to durable goods sellers. I know I’ll be checking out Brooklyn-based Nunu Chocolates, not to mention all the opportunities to go green with a variety of locally handmade leather belts and bags and other accessories made from recycled plastic.

Bryant Park’s Holiday Shops are already open and serving up some great, fashionable gifts. If you’re anything like me and want to spend the winter cuddled up on the couch in something warm, So Hand by Hand—a collection of top-quality hoodies, sweatpants, and knits—might be the perfect place for you to do your browsing.

Two more shout-outs to homemade and affordable: The biannual Holiday Handmade Cavalcade craft fair in Williamsburg, hosted by Etsy New York, featuring over 35 local artisans, designers, and crafters, who all live locally and sell their goods through the Etsy website. The Brooklyn Flea’s “Gifted” holiday markets will provide even the hippest in your home with something they’ve probably never seen before. –AB


My wife went to many a “Nutcracker” as a child and I did not, so my children’s introduction to the famed New York City Ballet version, with George Balanchine choreography and all that pageantry, was mine as well. Here’s the thing: I’m a tired parent and I tend to fall asleep in those comfortable seats, but when I was awake, I loved it. More importantly my children love it, so much so that I can understand why it’s hard for some to consider that there may be other wonderful Nutcrackers going on in the city at the same time. But of course there are. So as much as I encourage you to treat your child to the gold standard, I also encourage you to seek out more intimate versions of this classic.

The New York Theatre Ballet’s rendition—see preceding “10 Great Events” story for more info—is held at the particularly intimate Florence Gould Hall, so you’ll feel like you’re dancing right along with the cast. If you’re looking for something a little less traditional and a little more exotic, the Urban Ballet Theater’s Nutcracker mixes it up with krumping rats, popping soldiers, and a holiday salsa fiesta party.

Other Nutcrackers to love include those at Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts, Peridance, Puppetworks, and Dances Patrelle.