The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

What We Love About New York in Wintertime — 4 Local Writers Share Their NYC Holiday Traditions

New York is magical in the colder months. From holiday train shows to festive light shows, T+L contributors share their favorite traditions.

What exactly is it that makes New York City so enchanting around the holidays? We asked some of our favorite local writers to consider the question.

Leslie Jamison finds the spirit of the season in a quiet outer-borough neighborhood with a big personality. Sloane Crosley feels the magic in the chill blowing in off the river, while Rumaan Alam takes the kids uptown to see the city in miniature. And Jacqueline Woodson finds that a favorite childhood destination is still a bright spot — and a safe haven — after all these years.

Read on for their reflections, from the Bronx to Brooklyn.

Dyker Heights Christmas Lights

For a long time, living in New York City came attached to a perpetual sense of unbelonging. It ran deeper than simply not being from here — so many New Yorkers aren’t — that I eventually began to feel that this sense of not belonging was in fact a form of belonging. The belief in a superior New York that existed just beyond my grasp, the feeling that a better party was happening somewhere else? That feeling was the party.

Every once in a while, however, this sensation was punctured by a visceral, electric sense of presence. One of the first times I truly felt like I belonged in New York was in my twenties, when I stood awestruck before the Christmas lights of Dyker Heights, a Brooklyn neighborhood near the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge that puts on a truly extravagant, almost absurd display each year. Honestly, lights are just the beginning. Everything glows: An army of angels. Incandescent nativity scenes. Towering nutcrackers. Grinning snowmen. Bursting stars. Elves in tights. A red pickup truck. A giant milk bottle. There are millions of lights. Some of the displays are said to cost more than $20,000. Who knows what Con Edison makes off the festivities each year?

Let yourself feel small in a landscape of light — not erased by it, but surrendered to it. Let your face reflect the glow of community among strangers — which is, on its better days, what this city does best.

The tradition began in the 1980s with a woman named Lucy Spata, who moved to Dyker Heights and was disappointed by the lack of lights, so started putting up her own. I’m a sucker for any tradition born in the 1980s, as I too was born in the 1980s, and I grew up in Los Angeles, a city where people love to call anything that pre-dates this millennium historic. These lights remind me of home in a deeper sense, too — in their decadence, their excess, their gaudiness, in their refusal to apologize for their pageantry or their extremity. They are not playing it cool. They want you to like them. They want you to be awestruck. I’m up for it. I’m glad to be awestruck. I love the ways in which wonder makes it harder — even just for an evening, for an hour — to feel trapped on the outside of anything.

Awe can make you feel beckoned and spurned at once, and so much of the awe of New York seems designed to make you feel this way: Want me, but you can’t have me. Dream of me, but you can’t afford me. But this wonder is something else. Just a D-train ride away. So get a MetroCard. Get a paper cup of cocoa. Let yourself feel small in a landscape of light — not erased by it, but surrendered to it. Let your face reflect the glow of community among strangers — which is, on its better days, what this city does best. — Leslie Jamison

Two holiday scenes in New York City, including visitors at an immersive art experience, and looking at the holiday windows at Bergdorf Goodman department store
From left: Bundled-up visitors are refracted around Air, an immersive piece by Kenzo Digital at the Summit One Vanderbilt observation deck; Idyllic, one of the 2021 holiday window displays at Bergdorf Goodman—a favorite Fifth Avenue shopping destination for nearly 125 years.

Matthew Pillsbury

Hudson River Park, Pier 26

All islands feel cooler as you approach their edges. The streets of Manhattan are famously unsubtle about it, especially in the dark days of December. As one heads toward the river on either side, the wind picks up, the nose reddens, the hands sting. I can think of nothing better.

This has always been one of my preferred winter activities — to bundle up and meander along the gray, desolate pathways of Hudson River Park. Then, in the middle of the pandemic, came a great gift for people like me: the opening of Pier 26. The pier, which juts off the shore of TriBeCa, is meant to educate visitors about the ecology of the river through heavily labeled native flora, a tide deck, and a habitat walk. In the summer, it looks like a luxury resort that went public by accident, with boardwalks, deck chairs, and shrubbery. But I think it’s the winter version of the pier that I like the most. In the midst of a season that can feel crowded and overstimulated, a walk along the river feels like a choice. It’s the intentional approach to a New York winter, not the cross-to-bear one.

Related: 7 European-style Christmas Markets You Can Experience in the U.S.

Pier 26 also features oversize swinging benches, too new to creak. Sitting on them feels like a good reward for a chilly stroll. And because they’re reminiscent of porch swings, it’s easy to fantasize that I’m looking out over my own front yard — and that front yard happens to be the Hudson River and the New Jersey skyline, and my neighbors the few kindred and possibly masochistic souls who had the same bright idea.

Of course, no one can stay out in the wind and desolation forever, nose leaking, feet numbing. Inland await cozy downtown establishments like the Waverly Inn, the Nines, and the Bowery Hotel, places with large fireplaces and warm alcohol. Places that offer less virtue, but promote better circulation. — Sloane Crosley

People ice skating in Central Park
The holiday season in New York City unofficially begins when skaters take to Wollman Rink, in Central Park.

Matthew Pillsbury

The New York Botanical Garden Holiday Train Show

Children are fickle about their passions. A certain doll supplants a stuffed animal. One day it’s Greek myths, the next it’s knights and dragons. While I don’t remember my kids’ first words, I hope I never forget my older son at 15 months old, urgently saying “Doo-doo, doo-doo” until I understood that he meant choo-choo. He was less fickle than most — we spent the ensuing five years talking about transportation.

The first time my family ventured to the annual Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden, we had one chubby toddler confined to a stroller. The last time we went, we had two kids. Each had brought along their best friends, old enough now to be bored of their parents’ company.

In the winter, when the last of the petals have fallen and the trees are beautifully bare, you can step inside the chilly garden and be warmed by more than a million LEDs, the oohs and ahhs of young people,

I’m not sure why trains are so strongly associated with Christmas decorations — probably nostalgia for a past that never was. But at this show, the holidays aren’t quite the point. Occupying 250 acres in a quiet corner of the Bronx, the New York Botanical Garden is a National Historic Landmark and the largest such institution in any U.S. city, so the focus, rightly, is on nature. Model trains weave among miniature versions of New York landmarks (Gracie Mansion, the Statue of Liberty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art) built of bark, pine cones, seeds, and other natural materials.

Day-trippers heartier than us might enjoy tromping through the grounds in December. We never quite get to that. For me, part of the joy is stepping into the hothouse where the model trains are installed. The kids wiggle out of their winter coats, relieved. The air smells alive. I point out buildings we know and marvel at how cleverly the model makers have turned acorns into architectural ornaments. The kids humor me. On our last visit, my preteen made videos on his phone of the toy trains zipping along, slow but also somehow very fast, just like time itself. — Rumaan Alam

A holiday laser and light show at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Cherry Esplanade during Lightscape 2021.

Matthew Pillsbury

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden Lightscape

As a Brooklyn child in the 1970s, one of our family’s spring rituals was a trip to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. My sister and I donned our pastel dresses, pulled on ankle socks trimmed with lace, and slipped our feet into white patent-leather shoes. I remember kidskin gloves and ribboned braids beneath brimmed white hats. I remember putting department-store perfume samples into matching purses while our brothers struggled with the knots on their ties.

Even though the gardens, located in what is now known as Prospect Heights, were only about four miles from our home in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, there was no direct route for our carless family. So we embarked on the hour-long trip, boarding one train and transferring to another.

More Trip Ideas: 10 Festive Hotels That Make the Holiday Season More Magical Than Ever

Walking through the gates was like entering Oz. As a child I promised myself this always — a world of flowers and trees and grasses. A world of expansive lawns and snapping turtles and greenhouses and koi. A world where Brooklyn children from tiny apartments screamed in delight as they ran freely in what many of us called “the country” back then. I promised that one day my own kids would know this joy.

And yet…

Maybe each of my two children visited the gardens twice with me as babies. There were too many other things going on by the time they were born. And even though we live close by — a short walk through Prospect Park, across Flatbush Avenue, past the beauty that is Brooklyn’s Central Library — for a long time we got outdoors in our own backyard or up in the country, or outside the country.

But last year, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden invited me to write the poetry for their first-ever winter Lightscape — when the garden becomes a world of light, music, the work of local artists, hot chocolate with or without the spike, and a brightness that is always needed in the world. As I scoped out where my words would be positioned, I realized how much this place had been a respite for my mother, who kept us entertained and engaged on a single parent’s budget.

In the spring, the daffodils and lilies still bloom freely. The wildflowers suspend the breath. And in the winter, when the last of the petals have fallen and the trees are beautifully bare, you can step inside the chilly garden and be warmed by more than a million LEDs, the oohs and ahhs of young people, and, now, the absolute glee that comes from surviving a pandemic and literally walking out into the light. — Jacqueline Woodson

A version of this story first appeared in the November 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year."

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