Best Christmas Eve Activities in NYC for Families

Christmas Eve in NYC with Kids: Museums, Theater, Skating, Lights

Whether your family has established Christmas Eve traditions or decides to wing it, there are plenty of ways to celebrate in New York City this Saturday, December 24. From holiday shows to Christmas pageants, amazing holiday light and window displays to Christmas caroling, miniature trains, and ice skating, we found plenty of 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—the first day of the official school vacation for public school kids—to create a full day of NYC play.

You can find more seasonal activities in our Holiday Fun Guide or in our daily Event Calendar. And if you're celebrating the first night of Hanukkah instead, there are plenty of menorah lightings and Festival of Lights celebrations happening, too.

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, the Winter Village at Bryant Park, is open until 10pm. While you're there, finish your shopping in Bryant Park's holiday market and take a spin on the carousel, or snap a FREE photo with Santa before he disappears to gear up for a busy night!

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

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, video, or text with Santa.

5. Catch a holiday show. Some seasonal spectacles have performances on Christmas Eve, including Radio City's Christmas Spectacular and George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker (almost sold out!). Although many Broadway shows adjust their schedules today, family favorite Aladdin hosts a matinee, though tickets are going fast, and there are several other shows to choose from.

Catch Sing, a hilarious animal singing showdown opening this week. Photo courtesy of Universal Studios.

6. See a family movie. Cinemas are open on Christmas Eve. Check out SingRogue One: A Star Wars StoryMoana, or Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Also, 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. And keeping with 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 on Christmas Eve, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For more holiday spirit, make decorations at the Children's Museum of Manhattan (and catch the beautiful Muslim culture exhibit before it closes or enjoy building blocks at its Building Wonderlands exhibit) or gaze at the gorgeous Origami Holiday Tree at the American Museum of Natural History, and check out the newly-opened ¡Cuba! exhibition. Also, score FREE ice cream at the Museum of the City of New York!

8. Attend a religious service, Christmas pageant, or menorah lighting. St. Patrick's Cathedral is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. Its traditional midnight mass requires tickets; however, the church also hosts a children's mass at 5:30pm. Other services appropriate for children include the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine's Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols (Episcopal); Trinity Wall Street's Christmas Eve Family Eucharist (also Episcopal); and the Church of the Heavenly Rest's (Episcopal) pair of Christmas Pageants featuring more than 100 children reenacting the nativity story. Families can also enjoy Hanukkah Family Day at the Museum of the City of New York, or a lighting of the World's Largest Menorah in Manhattan or Brooklyn, plus many more lightings

9. Marvel at department store windows, illuminated Christmas trees and holiday light displays. In Manhattan, gawk at massive twinkling Christmas trees, amazing department store windows, or send your Christmas wish sparkling across The Luminaries at Brookfield Place. Head to the outer boroughs or nearby suburbs to 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 and on Long Island.

Go caroling beneath the arch. Photo courtesy of the Washington Square Association.

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 at 5pm and 6pm respectively. Usually closed to the public, Gramercy Park opens its doors to all for the caroling event each Christmas Eve, a special holiday treat.

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. It's also a great time to have kids round up and pack up toys for donation in the new year.

12. Track Santa with NORAD or the Google Santa Tracker. 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: Take a stroll to see the Saks light show. Photo by Shinya Suzuki via Flickr.

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