How the holidays in New York City have changed over the last 100 years

Holiday shopping 1946
Holiday shopping at Macy’s in 1946. AP PhotoCarl Nesensohn
  • There’s something magical about the holiday season in New York City.

  • Symbols of the holidays in the city, like the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, have been around for decades.

  • Other traditions, such as holiday shopping, look a little different today.

  • The coronavirus pandemic has shaken up some traditions even more, and many major events are going virtual this year.

  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The Big Apple usually draws millions of people from around the world to partake in holiday traditions like ice skating in Central Park and browsing iconic department stores’ decorative windows with hot cocoa in-hand.

While some features of the holidays in the city have stayed the same over the past 100 years, many others have changed. This year we’ll see even more changes to the city’s beloved traditions due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Here’s what the holidays used to look like in New York City, and what they’re like now.

There has been a Christmas tree on the Rockefeller Center grounds since 1931.

rockefeller center tree 1934
The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in 1934. MCNY/Gottscho-Schleisner/Getty Images

The first Christmas tree on the Rockefeller Center grounds was put into place in 1931, but the official Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree tradition started in 1933. Pictured here is the famous tree in 1934.

From 1942 until 1944, the Rockefeller Center tree went unlit due to World War II.

Rockefeller Center Christmas tree 1946 vintage
The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree being lifted in its position in 1946. Bettmann / Contributor via Getty Images

Pictured here is the tree arriving in its spot in 1946.

In 1949, the tree was painted silver to give it a more “wintry” look.

silver rockefeller christmas tree 1949
The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in 1949. Tom Fitzsimmons/AP

The tree was only silver for the year 1949, according to the New York City’s Official Convention & Visitor’s Bureau.

The famous tree continues to be a symbol of holiday festivities in Manhattan.

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
The Rockefeller Christmas Tree. Andres Kudacki/AP

In November, the tree is put in its place. Crowds swarm the area and line up to skate at the nearby ice rink and enjoy the festive decorations.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, there will be no public access for this year’s tree lighting ceremony.

Rockefeller tree
The 2020 Rockefeller Christmas tree being installed. Pacific Press/Getty Images

This year, the tree and its 50,000-plus lights will be lit on December 2. The tree is a Norway spruce from Oneonta, New York, clocking in at over 75 feet tall and about 11 tons. 

It’s suggested people stay home and watch the live broadcast of the lighting, which is airing from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on NBC. From 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. there will also be an hour of live music from artists including the Goo Goo Dolls and Kelly Clarkson, according to Today. 

Even decades ago, people still waited until the last minute to shop for gifts …

Holiday shopping 1946
A woman and her daughter Christmas shopping at Macy’s in New York City, 1946. AP PhotoCarl Nesensohn

Here, a woman and her daughter carry bundles of gifts after shopping at Macy’s on Christmas Eve in 1946.  

… and holiday crowds existed even in the 1920s.

christmas shoppers 42nd st nyc 1929
Shoppers flood 42nd Street in New York City in 1929. Paul Levine/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Here, Christmas shoppers flood 42nd Street in New York City in 1929.

Last-minute retail crowds still exist, but this year, stores will be encouraging shoppers to practice social distancing.

black friday NYC macy's
Crowds swarm the New York City Macy’s store in 2018 on Black Friday. David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

The holiday season music and store sales seem to start earlier and earlier each year.

Yet this year, some stores are trying to curb the crowds by only allowing a certain number of shoppers inside and encouraging them to shop online, instead.

Locals and tourists continue to enjoy hitting the city’s winter markets.

NYC holiday market
People walk by the holiday market at the Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park in November. Noam Galai/Getty Images

This year the European-inspired holiday market at the Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park looks a bit different. There are fewer shops than normal and those that are open are spread out more to encourage social distancing.

The Union Square Holiday Market will not open this year.

Lines at the post office were especially long during the holiday season, as people waited to send cards and gifts to loved ones.

holiday post office line
People lined up at a post office in New York City, circa 1900. George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Waiting in line at the post office was once the only way to send notes and presents. Here, people wait at a post office in New York City in the early 1900s.

Oh, how times have changed. Snail mail is undoubtedly still an important part of the winter holidays, but in a different way, thanks to online shopping.

United States Postal Service clerks sort mail at the USPS
A United States Postal Service clerks sort mail at the USPS. John Gress/Reuters

This year online holiday sales are expected to reach $189 billion, a 33% increase from last year, according to TechCrunch. 

 

Ice-skating was a favorite pastime during winters in the city.

ice skating central park
A family ice skates at Central Park, circa 1938. Underwood & Underwood/Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The Lake in Central Park was one of the earliest homes to ice-skating in New York City. It opened in the 1870s and quickly became a top attraction, according to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

Ice-skating in Central Park is still popular, but at new locations.

kourtney kardashian penelope ice skating central park
Kourtney Kardashian and her daughter, Penelope, ice skate in Central Park in 2018. Pierre Suu/GC Images

When ice skaters first used Central Park, the Lake and the Pond would be drained to a level that would easily freeze for skating. But the park’s ice-skating location moved to what is now known as Wollman Rink in 1950. Lasker Rink opened in 1966.

This year, fewer people will be allowed on the ice.

The Macy’s flagship store in New York City featured its first Santa Claus figure during the holiday season in 1864.

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A group of Santa Claus mascots at Macy’s in 1948. Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Legend has it that the Macy’s New York City flagship store was the first to feature a Santa Claus during the holiday season. But this New England Living Today story excerpted from a 1990 issue of Yankee Magazine, argues that James Edgar, who owned a dry goods store in Brockton Massachusetts, had Macy’s beat by a few years. 

Santa Claus has become a mainstay at the Macy’s Herald Square store.

macy's santa thanksgiving day parade
Santa also famously makes an appearance at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Peter Kramer/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

Macy’s Santaland has become an iconic attraction since it opened in 1980 at the Herald Square store — in a normal year, it draws more than 200,000 guests each year. 

For the first time in nearly 160 years, Santa will not make an appearance at Macy’s this year, due to the coronavirus.

Santa mask Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
Santa wore a mask to the 2020 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Macy’s Inc.

Families can instead chat with Santa via a virtual experience.

The city has also seen record-breaking Hanukkah commemorations, such as the lighting of a massive menorah in both Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Grand Army Plazas.

world's largest menorah 2012
Onlookers watch during the lighting of the large Manhattan menorah in 2012. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Pictured is the 2012 lighting of what’s dubbed the world’s largest menorah. That year, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg illuminated the 32-foot-high menorah at the front of Grand Army Plaza in Central Park.

Annual lightings of the massive menorahs take place in Brooklyn and Manhattan each Hanukkah. This year, there are still lightings happening across the city. 

Many of the city’s most famous department stores deck the halls with ornate window displays and exterior decorations.

saks fifth ave nyc 1960 holiday window
Holiday decorations at a department store. Walter Leporati/Getty Images

Here, shoppers gathered outside Saks Fifth Avenue in 1960 to admire the decorative displays.

Over the years, stores’ holiday decorations have gotten even more elaborate, thanks to LED lights, screens, and other advancements.

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Saks Fifth Avenue’s holiday store display. Jemal Countess/WireImage

Here, snowflakes glow at Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship store in 2009.

Today, department store holiday displays continue to dazzle passers-by.

Macy's holiday window display
A Macy’s holiday window display. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The holiday window decoration tradition is one that has withstood the test of time for many iconic department stores.

The Radio City Rockettes are also an iconic part of New York City in the holiday season.

rockettes vintage christmas holidays
The Rockettes, circa 1930s. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Rockettes were founded in 1925 but didn’t officially become the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes until 1934, according to the dance group’s website. 

The Rockettes’ famous “Toy Soldier” number in the group’s “Christmas Spectacular” show is a must-see during the winter holidays.

toy soldier rockettes 1988
The Rockettes’ “Toy Soldier” routine. Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

Here, the Rockettes performed the eye-catching “Toy Soldier” number in 1988.

In recent years, the Radio City Rockettes have continued to dazzle with sparkly outfits, high kicks, and pointed toes … although, not this year.

rockettes 2017
The Radio City Rockettes. Xinhua/Wang Ying via Getty Images

The Rockettes’ “Christmas Spectacular” show is a 90-minute production that has been captivating audiences since 1933.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s “Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes” has been canceled, according to The New York Times. 

“The Nutcracker” performed by the New York City Ballet is another famous symbol of the holidays.

nutcracker ballet 1954
Dancers in the “Nutcracker” ballet in 1954. Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Choreographed to music by famous composer Tchaikovsky, the New York City Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” at Lincoln Center is a quintessential holiday tradition.

Here, ballet dancers in the show perform in 1954.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait until next year to catch a performance of the iconic ballet.

the nutcracker ballet 2018
Dancers in “The Nutcracker” by the New York City Ballet. Virginia Sherwood/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

Like the Rockettes, The New York Ballet announced it is canceling holiday performances of “The Nutcracker” due to the coronavirus pandemic. The company hopes performances can resume in January. 

Times Square has been home to arguably the world’s most famous New Year’s Eve celebrations for more than a century.

nyc new years eve 1947
New Years Eve in Times Square, 1947. NBC / Contributor via Getty Images

It’s said that people celebrated the new year in Times Square since 1904.

There have been seven versions of the New Year’s Eve Times Square Ball over the years.

new years eve ball drop
Electricians prepare the New Year’s Eve ball in 1998. Susan Watts/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

In 1907, the New Year’s Eve ball made its first descent from the flagpole atop One Times Square, and it’s been lowered each year since then, except for 1942 and 1943, when the New Year’s Eve ceremony was halted during World War II.

The current ball is made of Waterford crystal triangles and has 32,256 LEDs.

Times Square continues to be a popular place of celebration for the new year, despite many native New Yorkers not understanding the hype.

new year's eve 2018
A couple celebrates the new year on January 1, 2019. Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Since 1972, “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” has been televised from Times Square, furthering the location as a symbol of the holiday spirit and new year.

Just like everything else, however, this year’s ball drop has moved online.

New Year's Eve Times Square ball
This year’s ball drop is being celebrated online. REUTERS/Keith Bedford

Although it’s one of the highlights of the year, could you imagine standing shoulder to shoulder with thousands of strangers? 

Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, told New York Daily News that although there won’t be any people, Times Square will still be rocking so people can celebrate at home. 

“This year there will be significantly new and enhanced virtual, visual and digital offerings to complement whatever limited live entertainment or experiences — still in development — will take place in Times Square,” Tompkins said.

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