12 Best Christmas Eve Activities in NYC for Families

Winter Cathedral is but one of the stunning sights you'll encounter at Lightscape, the new installation at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Photo by the author
Winter Cathedral is but one of the stunning sights you'll encounter at Lightscape, the new installation at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Photo by the author

Whether your family already has established Christmas Eve traditions or decides to wing it every year, there are plenty of ways to celebrate in New York City on Friday, December 24, 2021.

From the return of live theater to amazing holiday lights and window displays, plus Christmas caroling and ice skating, we found plenty of festive things to do on Christmas Eve with kids—during the day and after dark.

Find more seasonal activities in our Holiday Fun Guide or our daily Family Activity Calendar.

Editor's note: Remember, several places close early on Christmas Eve, so click through to the full listing or website to confirm times before heading out. Reservations are required for many of these events.

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1. 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? Try these nearby Christmas tree farms. Most close early on Christmas Eve, so call ahead.

2. See the Light

The stunning Lightscape display shines brightly on Christmas Eve at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. You can also enjoy the eye-popping NYC Winter Lantern Festival: Escape or Illuminate the Farm at Snug Harbor for some killer photo-ops.

RELATED: 35 NYC Holiday Activities Every Kid Should Try Once

bryant park ice skating 12 Best Christmas Eve Activities in NYC for Families
Check out the Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park for no-cost ice skating, if you bring your own skates! Photo by Janet Bloom

3. Go Ice Skating

Many of New York City's outdoor rinks are open on Christmas Eve, although most close early. The city's only no-cost rink at Bryant Park is open until 11:30pm, but you must book your session in advance. While you're there, finish up your holiday shopping in Bryant Park's holiday market. You can also hop on the ferry for some festive fun at the Governors Island Winter Village and Ice Skating Rink or check out the Brooklyn Children Museum's rooftop addition, ArtRink.

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 any last-minute requests. Can't deal with the lines? Catch Santa on Zoom.

RELATED: 35 Fun Things To Do With NYC Kids Over the Holiday Break

Visit the origami tree at AMNH on Christmas Eve 12 Best Christmas Eve Activities in NYC for Families
Holiday decor gets a makeover with the American Museum of Natural History's annual Origami Holiday Tree. Photo courtesy AMNH

5. Explore a Favorite Museum

Many museums are open on Christmas Eve, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, (10am-5pm) with its angel tree and Neapolitan Baroque Creche, plus a new exhibit dedicated to the magic of Walt Disney. Likewise, the American Museum of Natural History hosts an ultra-cool Origami Holiday Tree and a brand new ode to sharks. It's open from 10am-5:30pm.

6. Attend (or Stream) a Religious Service

The lottery is closed for the midnight mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, but the 5:30pm Christmas Eve family mass is open to the public. Also, anyone can join the live stream of both Christmas Eve masses. The (Episcopal) Cathedral of St. John the Divine's Service of Lessons and Carols is in-person, though all advance passes have been taken, and it will also be streamed on its website, Facebook page, and YouTube channel at 4pm on Christmas Eve.

RELATED: Holiday Windows Walk: See Midtown Manhattan's Iconic 2021 Christmas Displays

macy's holiday windows 12 Best Christmas Eve Activities in NYC for Families
Macy's holiday window display is a treat for visitors. Photo by Jody Mercier

7. Revel in the Holiday Decor

In Manhattan, gawk at massive twinkling Christmas trees and amazing department store windows. Or head to the outer boroughs to see other truly spectacular holiday displays. Consider Dyker Heights in Brooklyn, or head further afield to view the awesome holiday light displays in Westchester, New Jersey, and on Long Island.

8. Belt Out Some Carols

Every Christmas Eve, revelers gather under the Washington Square Arch next to the illuminated tree to sing traditional holiday songs at 5pm. Join in as The Rob Susman Brass Quartet leads a cast of crooners.

RELATED: Must-do Holiday and Christmas Events for New York City Kids in 2021

Santa Fun Cruise 12 Best Christmas Eve Activities in NYC for Families
All aboard the Santa Fun Cruise, where brownies, cookies, and hot cocoa fill your stomach. Photo courtesy of the cruise

9. Hop on a Holiday Cruise

Meet Santa aboard a Santa Fun Cruise in the afternoon complete with plenty of treats and a photoshoot in Santa's North Pole suite. Head out later in the evening on the NYC City Lights Cruise to view the city at its shimmery, sparkly, best.

10. Hit a Drive-thru Display

Speaking of far-flung displays, glittering, twinkling, professionally mounted drive-thru holiday light displays can be found throughout the tristate area, and many of these festive installations are open Christmas Eve. You can find awe-inspiring holiday light drive-thru displays on Long Island, in Westchester and the Hudson Valley, and in New Jersey.

RELATED: Best High Tea Spots in NYC to Enjoy a Cup with Kids

Winnie the Pooh and Friends t
Winnie the Pooh and Friends take the stage—in puppet form—in a charming new adaptation at Theatre Row. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made

11. Catch a Holiday Show

Celebrate the return of live performances with Christmas Eve tickets to one of the city's holiday shows including The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center, Winnie the Pooh: The New Musical Adaptation, or the stage adaptation of Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas family special.

12. Cue Up a Christmas Movie

We've got a giant list of family-friendly holiday movies to choose from, and keeping with its tradition, TBS airs A Christmas Story for 24 hours straight beginning at 8pm. If you'd prefer to go out, the Skyline Drive-In, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, shows the Christmas classics Elf and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

This article, first published in December 2009, is updated annually.

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