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Six Absolutely Free Things to Do in New York City This Christmas

Updated on February 1, 2017

Ah, Christmas: the season of excess, spending, and many broken budgets. It's the time of year when many would expect New York City to be a mecca of costly events and extravagant affairs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Christmas in New York City comes filled with opportunities to enjoy the magic of the Christmas season without spending a dime. One needs only know where to look. Here are the best free things to do during Christmastime in New York City.

1. See the Holiday 'Windows'

Macy's Holiday Windows are an annual Christmas treat for kids and adults in NYC!
Macy's Holiday Windows are an annual Christmas treat for kids and adults in NYC!

When New Yorkers speak of the holiday windows at Christmas time, they are really referring to the extravagantly dressed Christmas windows of the major department shows in Mid-town, Manhattan. Beginning in late November, the windows of Macy’s, Lord and Taylor, Bergdoff Goodman and others come alive with color, movement and music for a free holiday treat that locals and visitors look forward to.

Each window can best be described as a show—a show where the traditional, heartwarming Christmas gets reinvented in a way that remains warm, but feels fresh and exciting. For 2015, one Macys window showed the traditional Santa flying around in an animated sleigh. The twist? Santa was depicted delivering joy and gifts to the planets of the Milky Way solar system instead of to the boys and girls of Earth. This year (2016), the windows seem to be playing homage to the more magical part of Christmas. Lord and Taylor has fully focused on the fantasy and magic of The Nutcracker story with colorful windows displaying the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Nutcracker Prince and other characters from the story while Macys are filled with interpretations from Santa's workshop.

To get to the windows, take the A, C, E, 2,3, or F trains to the 34th Street stop, walk up to 7th Avenue where Macy's windows begin. Continue up 7th, then turn unto 6th and 5th avenues all the way up to 50th street for a festive and free evening of even more colorful windows.

2. Admire a Larger-Than-Life Christmas Tree

World renowned for its size (100 feet tall), the Rockefeller Christmas tree is a New York City must at Christmas time.
World renowned for its size (100 feet tall), the Rockefeller Christmas tree is a New York City must at Christmas time.

No Christmas is complete without a sparkly, colorful Christmas tree laden with ornaments and lights. New York City does the Christmas tree unlike any other city on earth. From the skyscraping Rockefeller Center Christmas tree to the artsy origami Christmas tree on the American Museum Natural History's first floor , the city's public trees are a great way to enjoy an essential part of the holiday.

Visit the famous Rockefeller tree at its free lighting in November, or on any other evening after that for a grand tree which seems to reach the sky. The Rockefeller Tree lighting is an event in itself. Expect to see live performances around the 80 foot or taller tree which is often decorated with Swarovski crystals and more than 40,000 lights. The tree normally stays lit until the middle of January, but gets crowded every night.

If the crowded Rockefeller Center is too intimidating, take a trip to the colorful tree in Bryant Park, where there will be less people hanging around and the chance of getting a good family photo is much better. See www.rockefellercenter.com for the date and time of the scheduled lighting of the Rockefeller tree, and for directions to Rockefeller Center. To get to Bryant Park take the B ,D, F, or M train to the 42nd Street/ Bryant Park Stop, and walk to the park.

For those who appreciate a less traditional Christmas tree, the American Museum of Natural History's eclectic origami Christmas tree is a 13 feet high wonder of paper art that is amazing to look at. Kids will especially wonder at this tree which is decorated with origami ornaments reflecting a yearly theme. In past years, paper dinosaurs, whales and other creatures from nature have adorned the tree. Although there is a suggested entry price, entrance to the museum is pay as you wish so one could quiet honestly see the tree (and the museum) for next to nothing! For more information visit www.amnh.org.

3. Go Christmas Caroling With Local Families.

If the Christmas tree is the season's ultimate symbol, the Christmas carol is it's finest expression. Join local families on Christmas Eve for caroling that will warm the heart, and spread goodwill to all who hear. For the best caroling opportunities, head over to the exclusive Gramercy Park (gramercyparkblockassociation.org for information) for an hour of singing, or to Washington Square Park for a longer session.

4. See the Free Gingerbread Extravaganza at Le Meridien Parker Hotel

Breakfast at Tiffany themed Gingerbread House at Le Parker Meridien's free Gingerbread House event--- Another great free thing to do in New York City at Christmas
Breakfast at Tiffany themed Gingerbread House at Le Parker Meridien's free Gingerbread House event--- Another great free thing to do in New York City at Christmas

The Gingerbread Extravaganza hosted by the Le Parker Meridien hotel is actually held each year for the benefit of a charitable organization called City Harvest. City Harvest is a well- regarded foundation that feeds the less fortunate in New York City. Every Christmas Le Parker Meridien hosts a gingerbread house competition in the lobby of its 56th Street hotel for the foundation's benefit. The competition attracts New York City’s best pastry chefs who create the most unbelievable gingerbread houses for a show that is free to the public. The gingerbread houses on show elevate the Christmas staple from child’s play and into an art form. The amazing creations from previous years include a Audrey Hepburn covered 'Breakfast at Tiffany' themed Gingerbread house (2014's show), and one featuring Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster eating New York City! The show is free to the public, but many visitors make a small donation to the charity by paying a small fee to vote for a winner (about $1).For information on dates and more, check www.cityharvest.org or www.parkermeriien.com.

5. See New York City Transit Museum's Free Holiday Train Show

This train show is a favorite with locals over the holidays. Beginning in the middle of November each year the New York City Transit Museum brings its free holiday train show to the Grand Central Terminal building. The long running show is really a small scale replica of the city’s train system travelling through a realistic scenery that changes each year. Themes of previous years include a homage to New York City when it was just a small town of immigrants (2014's show) and a celebration of the city's icons like the Grand Central Terminal itself.

Watch as the small train replicas throttle away through realistic looking tunnels and past beautifully depicted scenery. Look out for homey cabins and town scenes along the trains’ journey. The kids will love trying to catch the lightning fast black train that zooms in and out of mountainside tunnels and is a feature of each year’s show.

Leave the free train show and head into the main floor of the Grand central building which is itself a treat. Look up for a sight to behold. The Grand Central Terminal’s ceilings are covered with intricate paintings reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel. Admire the paintings and the architectural grandeur of the building, then head to the Christmas Fair for some exquisite window shopping at the pop up stores.

To get to the train show, take the 4,5,6, or 7 train to Grand Central Terminal/42nd street stop and walk to the Transit Museums store located inside Grand Central.

6. Ice Skate for Free at Bryant Park's Winter Village

Ice skating is the perfect activity for those white winter nights. Normally visitors to New York City have to pay a pretty penny to enjoy the activity, but each Christmas the Bank of America sponsored Winter Village in Bryant Park opens up its skating rink for free skating to those who have their own skates (those without have to pay the fees).

Go ice skating with a huge Christmas tree and a romantic carousel as your view in the beautiful Bryant Park where couples and families often go to enjoy the great seasonal events. After skating, check out the rest of Winter Village for free samples of apple cider and other holiday treats. The Winter Village is a colorful cocktail of festive stands selling all things related to the holidays for those who want to do last minute shopping. Past years have seen vendors selling everything from Christmas ornaments to fruitcake. To get here, take the B, D,F, or M train to Bryant Park/42nd Street stop. Check www.wintervillage.org for more information.

New York City's large  Christmas trees are great for family photos, also check out the free skating at Winter Village.
New York City's large Christmas trees are great for family photos, also check out the free skating at Winter Village.

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