Whether your family has established Christmas Eve traditions or decides to wing it, there are plenty of ways to celebrate it in New York City this Thursday. From holiday shows to Christmas pageants, amazing holiday light and window displays to Christmas caroling, miniature trains and ice skating, we found more than a dozen festive things to do on Christmas Eve with kids—during the day and after dark.
Remember, a number of places will close early on Christmas Eve, so click through to the full listing before hopping on the train. Still, there's plenty open on this holiday—and first day of official school vacation for the kids—to create a day full of NYC play. You can find more seasonal activities in our Holiday Fun Guide or in our daily Event Calendar.
1. Go ice skating. Most New York City indoor and outdoor rinks are open on Christmas Eve, although many close early. The city's only no-cost rink, Winter Village at Bryant Park, is open until 10pm. Bonus: Finish your holiday shopping in Bryant Park's adjacent market and take a spin on the carousel.
2. Buy your Christmas tree. My family often waits until Christmas Eve to purchase a tree. You can negotiate a better price, and decorating the tree on Christmas Eve is a wonderful way to spend time as a family. Want to cut your own? We have roundups of Christmas tree farms nearby as well as on Long Island, in New Jersey and Connecticut. Most close early on Christmas Eve so call ahead. If that's too much for you, put your feet up, grab some hot cocoa and have your tree come to you through a delivery service. Keep in mind, the closer to Christmas, the more limited the selection.
3. See a holiday train show. Both the beautiful, annual exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden and New York Historical Society's Holiday Express installation are open until 3pm. Meanwhile, the more modest FREE display at the New York City Transit Museum in Grand Central Terminal is open until 6pm.
4. Visit Santa. The big guy in red is still holding court at many spots around town, but he'll probably leave early given the big night ahead. Go in the morning if you have last-minute requests. Can't deal with the lines? Try a FREE call or email with Santa.
5. Catch a holiday show. Some seasonal spectacles have performances on Christmas Eve, including the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker and Elf: The Musical. Although many Broadway shows are dark today, family favorites The Lion King and Aladdin host matinees, and there are a few other shows to choose from, too.
6. See a family movie. Cinemas are open on Christmas Eve and you might be able to score tickets to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, perhaps the hottest movie ticket in town. Other family-friendly options include Disney Pixar's The Good Dinosaur and The Peanuts Movie. Those with tweens and teens can check out the latest installment of The Hunger Games series.
The IFC Film Center continues its tradition of screening It's a Wonderful Life, which is also playing on NBC on Christmas Eve at 8pm. Have cable? Tune into TCM or AMC to watch classic Christmas flicks such as White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, Christmas in Connecticut and Meet Me in St. Louis. As is its tradition, TBS airs A Christmas Story for 24 hours straight starting at 8pm.
7. Explore a festive museum exhibit. Many major museums are open today, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At Discovery Times Square, visitors can take in its Star Wars and the Power of the Costume exhibit. For more holiday spirit, make ornaments at the Children's Museum of Manhattan or gaze at the gorgeous Origami Holiday Tree at the American Museum of Natural History, where you can experience The Secret World Inside You and Life at the Limits.
8. Attend a religious service or Christmas pageant. Many churches host family-friendly services on Christmas Eve at which all are welcome. That said, they do get crowded. The newly renovated St. Patrick's Cathedral is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and hosts a Children's Mass at 5:30pm. Its traditional midnight Mass requires tickets. Other services appropriate for children include the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine's Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols at 4pm (Episcopal); Trinity Wall Street's Christmas Eve Family Eucharist (also Episcopal) at 3pm and 5pm, Riverside Church's (interdenominational with Baptist tradition) Christmas Eve Service Worship for Children and Families at 4pm; Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church's Family Ministries service at 4pm (carols at 3:30pm); the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin's (Orthodox) festival vigil; and the Church of the Heavenly Rest's (Episcopal) pair of Christmas Pageants featuring more than 100 children reenacting the nativity story at 3:30pm and 5pm. Want something more traditional? Check out our post on kid-friendly midnight services in NYC.
9. Marvel at department store windows, illuminated Christmas trees and holiday light displays. In Manhattan, gawk at massive twinkling Christmas trees and amazing department store windows. But if you head to the outer boroughs or nearby suburbs, you can see other truly spectacular holiday displays. Consider Dyker Heights in Brooklyn or the Bronx Christmas House. If you have a car, you can visit awesome holiday light displays in New Jersey, Westchester and on Long Island.
10. Go Christmas caroling. Every Christmas Eve, revelers gather under the Washington Square Arch next to the illuminated tree to sing traditional holiday songs at 5pm. The Rob Susman Brass Quartet accompanies the crooners, and songbooks are provided. There is also candlelight caroling in West Stuyvesant Square Park and Gramercy Park.
11. Help others in need. Holiday volunteering opportunities tend to book up months in advance, but we have an entire post about ways you can help. God's Love We Deliver is still seeking volunteers to deliver meals on Christmas Eve. It's also a great time to have round up and pack up toys for donation in the new year.
12. Track Santa with NORAD. See Kris Kringle during the day and then track his progress online at night as he delivers presents to good little boys and girls. Remind kids that they must be in their beds before he hits NYC to ensure delivery of all requested goodies.
Top photo: The tree in Washington Square Park makes a magnificent backdrop for Christmas Eve carols. Photo by Kevin Bedell via Flickr.
This post, originally published in December 2009, is updated annually.