Air conditioning, bank ATMs, toilet paper, hip-hop, and Waldorf salads were all invented in New York City. Believe it or not, so was the modern way of celebrating Christmas.
In Gotham, a Pulitzer Prize–winning history of the city, authors Mike Wallace and Edwin G. Burrows tell the story of how two NYC-based writers created many of the tales and traditions surrounding the holiday.
The first was Washington Irving who, in his 1809 book Knickerbocker’s History of New York, created Santa Claus. St. Nicholas, Irving wrote, was “a jolly old Dutchman, nicknamed Sancte Claus, who parked his wagon on rooftops and slid down chimneys with gifts for sleeping children on his feast day.” Wallace and Burrows note: “Certainly nothing remotely like the Sancte Claus protrayed by Irving had ever been known on either side of the Atlantic.”
A decade after he rebranded the saint, Irving also reimagined how the church-based holiday should be celebrated. His 1819 short story collection The Sketch Book would introduce readers to Ichabod Crane, Rip Van Winkle, and the idea of Christmas as a “cozy domestic ritual.”
A few years later, another New Yorker, Clement Clarke Moore, penned his beloved poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which moves the right jolly old elf’s drop-in from his saint’s day, December 6, to the night before Christmas, December 24.
That revision ended up having a huge impact on how the holiday was celebrated. Up to then, many Protestant Americans gave little attention to December 25, regarding the date’s yuletide designation, according to Wallace and Burrows, as an “artifact of Catholic ignorance and deception: not only was the New Testament silent on the date of Christ’s birth, they noted, but the Church picked December 25 to coincide with the beginning of the winter solstice, an event traditionally associated with wild plebeian bacchanals.”
But the irresistible popularity of Moore’s poem, which was picked up by newspapers across the United States, sealed December 25 as Christmas Day—and the proper date for family gatherings, tearing into suspended stockings, reaping Santa’s windfall, and gathering around Christmas trees (brought to Brooklyn by German immigrants in the 1830s).
Having originated, maintained, disseminated, and improved so many Christmas traditions, New York City is arguably the holly-jolliest place in the United States to spend a December getaway. What follows, in no particular order, are the city’s top 10 seasonal sights and experiences.