Anyone looking for seasonal high spirits and New Year’s cheer should head to New York, which wards off the winter chill with festivities, fireworks and fun.
Words by Brian Johnston
Of all the world’s celebrations, New Year is certainly the most universal. Just about everyone, everywhere, recognises the occasion with some sort of merrymaking, and the event is marked by the loud explosion of fireworks and partying that makes its way across the globe from east to west.
And while New York is one of the world’s last major cities to celebrate, it puts on a show that gets the attention of television news across the globe.
If you want to be at the centre of the action, Times Square is it. For a start, it’s classic New York, with its yellow cabs, flashing neon advertising, street hawkers and horseback police. It’s also right in the middle of the theatre district, where you should certainly take the opportunity to see big musicals or an off-Broadway play. And, of course, it’s the epicentre of the city’s New Year’s Eve festivities, as an estimated half a million people cram into the square for the countdown to midnight. Another estimated billion people will see it on television.
A glittering ball of crystals and LED lights descends on a pole to mark the moment in a huge burst of confetti, a tradition dating back to 1907. But there’s much more to keep the crowd in good spirits, with performances on two stages throughout the evening, and fireworks bursting out from the One Times Square building every hour, on the hour.
Beyond New Year’s excitement, there are plenty of other reasons to visit New York in winter. Certainly it’s cold, but brave the chill and you’re in for a treat. You’ll encounter fewer crowds and queues and a gentler Manhattan where brash New Yorkers are mellowed by December’s festival atmosphere. Admire ice on the Hudson River, roll snowmen in Central Park and enjoy the cosy warmth of restaurants and museums. The city glows with Christmas lighting from early December all the way into January, with especially wonderful displays along Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue. Grand Central train terminal has spectacular laser shows on the ceiling of the main concourse, choreographed to seasonal music. Down at South Street Seaport there are glittering white lights and a giant Christmas tree, under which the St Cecilia Chorus entertains passers-by with carols. Even the Botanical Gardens light up, and Bronx Zoo features illuminated animal sculptures and 12 km of tree-hung fairy lights to delight kids and the young at heart alike.
Shopping and New York go together like a hotdog and pickles, and this might also be the best time of year to indulge – and not just because the stores are warm retreats from the big freeze. In the run-up to Christmas, show windows provide marvellous displays of animated soft toys and rumbling toy trains; some of the best are provided by Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdale’s, Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman. Take the kids to Santaland in Macy’s too; the department store also has shop assistants dressed as elves.
For another iconic experience of the New York winter, stop by the Rockefeller Center, which has been the classic grande dame of New York skyscrapers since its opening in the 1930s. Observation deck Top of the Rock provides stupendous views in all directions, from snowy Central Park to downtown Manhattan. Down at ground level, you can take a spin on the Rockefeller Center’s renowned ice rink, overlooked by its gold statue of Prometheus, a glittering tree and trumpet-blowing angels.
Talking of skating, winter is ice-hockey season. There are two local teams, the Rangers and Islanders, and you can catch them in action at Madison Square Garden and the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island respectively. You mightn’t see much festive goodwill at a match – ice hockey can be a very aggressive sport – but the speed and skill of the game is a sight to behold.
If snow does fall in New York (and it likely will at some point in December or January), it soon turns slushy in the streets, but Central Park might remain white for weeks. Walking in the park is a great treat of the New York winter, with bare tree branches raking the sky against a backdrop of elegant apartment blocks. There are two skating rinks, and you can even take off across the park on cross-country skis. If it gets too cold, head to the adjacent Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose displays range from medieval armour to Tiffany lamps and ancient Persian statues. It has lovely seasonal decorations too, including a Christmas tree, nativity scene and 18th-century Italian angels.
Another good winter’s walk takes you along Hudson River promenades to the tip of Manhattan Island. At Battery Park you’ll see the Statue of Liberty loom across the harbour. Prepare for a very cold ferry crossing if you want to visit, although you’ll be compensated for the Atlantic winds by a lack of queues. If the chill doesn’t take your breath away, the views of the Manhattan skyline certainly will.
All the festive fun culminates on New Year’s Eve. The Times Square festivities might be globally recognised for their New Year’s shenanigans, but the city has plenty more ways to celebrate, with a host of concerts and parties on the night, often with big-name DJs and musicians making an appearance. Nor does Times Square provide the only fireworks. Head to Prospect Park for a more low-key and family-friendly alternative, accompanied by live music and free mugs of hot chocolate. The fireworks are set off at Long Meadow, but the best views are from Grand Army Plaza and along Prospect Park West. Lights explode in green and red against a background of skyscrapers, faces turn to the sky in admiration, and another year is welcomed in New York style.
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THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT
Among classic December shows in New York is Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet at the Lincoln Center and a musical retelling of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer at The Theater at Madison Square Garden. Radio City Music Hall hoststhe city’s most spectacular Christmas show, featuring the famous Rockettes chorus line, marching ‘wooden’ soldiers, dancing dolls and (of course) Rudolph – a must-see for kids and those who remain young at heart.