The history of Christmas in New York City

For+over+a+century%2C+New+York+City+has+been+the+home+to+various+Christmas+traditions.

Jackie Franco '23

For over a century, New York City has been the home to various Christmas traditions.

With trees lit, ice skates tied, and Rockettes kicking, Christmas has returned to New York City (NYC) once again.  Long-held traditions further the holiday cheer that occupies Manhattan every December.  Home to many anticipated annual holiday celebrations, NYC has defined itself as the premier tourist destination during the holiday season.  

In December 1931, Rockefeller Center employees gathered to raise money for a Christmas tree, according to rockefellercenter.com.  Since its original 20 foot tree, Rockefeller Center has hosted trees spanning from 69 to 100 feet, according to rockefellercenter.com.

Rockefeller Center hosts its first Christmas tree in 1931.  Courtesy of nyhistory.com.

The inaugural lighting of the Rockefeller Christmas tree marks the start of the Christmas season as New Yorkers and people from different countries gather to share holiday joy.  The illumination of the Christmas tree became an official annual tradition in 1936, according to rockefellercenter.com.  The event became televised in 1951, requiring a more ornate tree for its now national audience, according to 6sqft.com.

Underneath the Rockefeller Christmas Tree lays the Rink at Rockefeller Center.  The ice skating rink opened on Christmas Day in 1936, according to rockefellercenter.com.  Many famous ice skaters and celebrities have traveled to enjoy the merry ambiance of the Rink, in addition to the approximately 250,000 people who visit annually, according to nbcnewyork.com.

The extravagant displays in the windows of famous department stores further the whimsical Christmas atmosphere in Manhattan.  From Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman to Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, stores in NYC make a special effort to draw customers in during the holidays, according to The New York Times.  On Thirty-Fourth Street in Herald Square stands the Macy’s department store where this tradition originated in 1874, according to The New York Times.

In 1925, a British dance troupe called “The Tillers” inspired Mr. Russell Market, a Missouri-based choreographer, to form the Missouri Rockettes, according to rockettes.com.  They distinguished themselves with their precise choreography and glamour, which continues to attract audiences to their shows.  The group traveled to NYC to perform as the Roxyettes at the Roxy Theater.  They performed their first show at Radio City Music Hall on December 27th, 1932, according to nypl.org. 

The Rockettes perform in Radio City Music Hall in December 1944.  Courtesy of vanityfair.com.

Two years after their debut at Radio City, the dance troupe officially became the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, according to 6sqft.com.  Almost a century after its founding, their Christmas Spectacular Show has become part of the NYC Christmas experience.  The current dancers widely appreciate the Rockettes history.  When speaking with Rockette Ms. Mara Ranson about a memory from one of her favorite performances, Ms. Corey Whalen, a ten-year Rockette veteran, recognized the social influence of the group over history.

“Right before, they showed a video going through the history of the Rockettes.  Hearing those words as we went up on the beautiful staircase, we felt like we were carrying on this amazing legacy,” Ms. Whalen said, according to dancespirit.com.  “The Rockettes have been at Radio City since 1932 and are still such a part of NYC culture.  I meet families who come to the show every year, and they’ve seen the evolution of the Rockettes over time.”

Featured Image by Jackie Franco ’23