New York Holds a Soft Spot for the Holidays

It’s winter holiday time in New York City and the Municipal Archives has some great historical photographs of many traditional events of the season. 

Mayor Koch participates in a Chanukah ceremony in the City Council Chambers on December 13, 1982. Mayor Koch Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Macy’s A New York Holiday Tradition

Christmas shoppers on West 34th Street outside of Macy’s, ca. 1937. WPA Federal Writers' Project Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

 Madison Square Boys’ Club Thanksgiving Day Parade. “The Mayor’s Emergency Wardrobe Hanging fireman’s helmet, mortarboard, shovel, music.” November 1940, Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, NYC Municipal Archives.

Madison Square Boys’ Club Thanksgiving Day Parade. “The Mayor’s Emergency Wardrobe Hanging fireman’s helmet, mortarboard, shovel, music.” November 1940, Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade kicks off the festivities.  It began in 1924; the first parade showcased store employees dressed in costumes, live animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo, and professional bands and floats. It was such a success that it became an annual event. Balloons replaced the live animals in 1927 and for many years, the balloons would be released into the sky at the end of the parade.

1317-1329 Broadway, Macy’s flagship building with ad saying "Macy's-Everybody’s Santa," 1972. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Santa first materialized at Macy’s in 1864, and his appearance has turned into such a holiday tradition that reservations are required to visit Santa Land. In 1874, Macy’s was the first store to install special holiday window displays, featuring a collection of porcelain dolls and scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” But the tradition of visiting the storefront windows throughout midtown Manhattan was really started in 1914 when Saks Fifth Avenue inaugurated an unveiling ceremony. In 1938, Lord and Taylor made the jump from showcasing items from store stock, to purely fantastical art installations. Today, Lord and Taylor estimates that more than 250,000 pedestrians view their windows every day during the holiday season. The popularity of special holiday window displays is not confined to midtown Manhattan. Storefronts along Lenox Avenue in Harlem depict the neighborhood’s history, with designs created by art students from the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Light Up NYC

Mayor David Dinkins and Rabbi Shmewl Butman are lifted in a Con Edison cherry-picker to light the world’s largest Menorah in Grand Army Plaza at 59th Street Manhattan. Mayor Dinkins Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The festival of Chanukah was not always a public celebration. For centuries, the holiday was largely commemorated at home with family. One hundred years ago, according to the Tenement Museum, “Passengers riding the elevated train through the Lower East Side on a December night in the 1890s would have seen hundreds of tiny candles illuminating the windows of tenement apartments inhabited by Eastern European Jews.” Today, menorahs measuring more then 30-feet in height (the largest in the world) stand at the Grand Army Plaza entrances to Prospect Park in Brooklyn and Central Park in Manhattan.

Nowadays, when people think of a Christmas tree lighting ceremony, they think of Rockefeller Center. However, the first public Christmas tree was displayed in Madison Square Park in 1912. The “Tree of Light,” as it was known, was conceived by Emilie D. Lee Hershoff as a public event for everyone. His hope was fulfilled when at least 20,000 New Yorkers attended the lighting ceremony.

Unlit tree in front of City Hall, ca. 1937. WPA Federal Writers' Project, NYC Municipal Archives.

Williamsburg Bridge Christmas tree at Brooklyn Plaza, December 29, 1936. Department of Bridges/Plant & Structures Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Not only is NYC the first city to have a public tree-lighting ceremony, but it is also the first place to put electric light bulbs on a Christmas tree. Traditionally, wax candles were placed directly on the tree branches, allowing for a lovely sight that was also a serious fire hazard. A New Yorker, Edward Hibbard Johnson, vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company, had the bright idea that transformed tree decorating. In 1882, he wired 80 red, white, and blue light bulbs together around the tree in the parlor of his townhouse on East 36th Street. The tree stood proudly in the window so people passing could see it alight. Johnson was so delighted by his life-saving invention that he invited reporters to take a look. W.A. Croffut of the Detroit Post remarked, “One can hardly imagine anything prettier.”

In 1931, during one of the worst years of the Great Depression, workers at Rockefeller Center decided to pool their money and buy a 20-foot Christmas tree. They decorated it with handmade garlands. Two years later, this became an annual event, with the first lighting of a 50-foot tree. In 1936, the iconic Rockefeller Center ice-skating rink was installed. This year, for the 85th Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting, the 94-foot tree from Oneonta, New York, is topped with a Swarovski star and decorated with more than 50,000 lights.

Santa Claus with Mayor O’Dwyer at the City Hall Christmas Party in 1948. Mayor O’Dwyer Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

 Santa is a Native New Yorker

In many ways it was New Yorker Washington Irving who tied St. Nicholas, more popularly known as “Santa,” to Christmas. He believed that there were too few real holidays and in his 1809 “A History of New York,” declared St. Nicholas to be the patron saint of New York. The rumor is that the first Dutch ship to sail into New York had Ole’ Nick on the masthead. Irving had help introducing the holiday to the public from Clement Clarke Moore, a prominent property owner in the Chelsea neighborhood. Moore repurposed St. Nicholas from a saint celebrated on December 6, to a portly, jolly Dutchman pulled by eight tiny reindeer who visits homes on Christmas Eve. Moore wrote the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” for the enjoyment of his six children, never realizing that he was creating folklore for the whole world.

Kwanzaa takes place over 7 days from December 26th to January 1st, and celebrates 7 principles of African heritage. On December 28, 1992 Mayor Dinkins celebrated Kwanzaa with children from the Harlem School of the Arts and the Brownsville Child Development Center. Mayor Dinkins Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

New York’s Iconic Ball Dropping

Revelers have been ringing in the New Year in Times Square since 1904. And beginning in 1907, they watched a specially-lit ball descend a flagpole atop 1 Times Square. This year it is expected that over 90,000 people will attend, with millions more watching on television.

Times Building and Hotel Astor at night, ca. 1937. WPA Federal Writers' Project, NYC Municipal Archives.

For the last forty years the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade isn’t the only parade to feature live animals—on January 6th camels and sheep march through the streets of East Harlem in celebration of Three Kings Day bringing the 12 days of Christmas to a close.

Mayor and Mrs. Dinkins were presented with a wood carving of the Three Kings during a Three Kings Day Feast in 1993. Mayor Dinkins Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Municipal Archives invites visitors to look through our online gallery. Reproductions of all the photos in this blog post can be purchased through our online order form.

Ice skaters and instructors at Rockefeller Plaza, December 1937. WPA Federal Writers' Project, NYC Municipal Archives.