Santa isn't the only one making a list and checking it twice. Our carefully curated December GoList is packed with the absolute best things to do with kids in NYC throughout the month. Our top picks include FREE holiday gatherings such as the 20th annual Central Park Holiday Lighting by the Harlem Meer and the quirky Unsilent Night musical procession in Greenwich Village; seasonal concerts by Laurie Berkner and Grammy-winning kindie rocker Dan Zanes; and cool cultural offerings such as the Whitney Museum's Dreamlands Family Day and the exuberant Mother Africa circus at the New Victory Theater.
It's also worth rereading our November GoList since many of those festive picks continue through December, including the Dyker Lights holiday displays, Macy's Santaland, and the New York Botanical Garden Holiday Train Show—and various Nutcracker performances around the city.
As always, keep checking our Event Calendar and Holiday Guide for the most up-to-date celebrations, including tree lightings, Santa sightings, and totally FREE holiday events for NYC kids.
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If an event piques your interest, click through to our listing for all the details, including addresses, times, and prices. And remember, really cool things to do with kids in NYC book up quickly, especially during the holidays. Buy your tickets ASAP or, in the case of FREE events, arrive as early as possible to beat the crowds. Now get your calendars ready! Here are the top 13 things to do with kids in New York City this December, five of which are FREE.
Take a step back in time in one of the MTA's Shoppers Special vintage trains. Photo courtesy of the MTA.
MTA Shoppers Special Vintage Subway Trains — Long Island City, Queens to the Lower East Side
Sundays, November 27-December 18
With a swipe of your MetroCard, you can take retro rides on vintage R1/9 subway trains that date from the 1930s through the 1970s, all meticulously maintained by the New York Transit Museum. Marvel at the old-school details, including rattan seats, ceiling fans, incandescent bulbs, and authentic vintage advertisements (some quaint, others downright funny). These special trains run on the Sixth Avenue line between the Queens Plaza and Second Avenue stations. They stop at holiday hotspots such as 34th Street/Herald Square, 42nd Street/Bryant Park and 47-50th Streets/Rockefeller Center, so you can jump off and enjoy Macy’s Santaland, no-cost ice skating in Bryant Park, the Rock Center tree, and many department store holiday windows. It's a must-do outing for train-loving families. Check out our in-depth post about this annual experience. Bonus: Starting December 5, on weekdays you can hop on retro buses from the 1950s through the 1980s running on the M42 line (aka the 42nd Street crosstown). Free with your MetroCard
Central Park Holiday Lighting — Harlem
Thursday, December 1
Kick off the holiday season with the Central Park Conservancy as the northeastern edge of Central Park comes alive with cheer. The Victorian-style Charles A. Dana Discovery Center is decked out with thousands of LEDs, and a flotilla of trees lights up on the adjacent Harlem Meer. Old St. Nick and his Mrs. drop by to say hello and pose for pics, plus there are ice sculptures, caroling, and complimentary cookies and hot cocoa. What used to be a small, neighborhood gathering has become incredibly popular, so expect crowds. FREE
RELATED: Best Holiday Theater for NYC Kids in 2016
The beloved characters of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical are at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. Photo courtesy of Character Arts.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical — Midtown West
Thursday, December 1-Sunday, December 18
The Radio City Christmas Spectacular isn't the only big-budget holiday extravaganza in town. If you're looking for an alternate holiday show to fill you with cheer, try this touring stage adaptation of the classic Rankin/Bass stop-motion animation TV special about Kris Kringle's most colorful reindeer. Running at the Theater at MSG, this live musical spectacle features all of the beloved characters, including Santa and Mrs. Claus, Hermey the Elf, Bumble the Abominable Snow Monster, and, of course, Rudolph. Like the source material, it has an anti-bullying message and celebrates individuality. Come early and you can participate in a variety of carnival-style "reindeer games" in the lobby. It's one of our top theater picks for families this season. There are plenty of discount codes flying around out there, so make sure you take advantage.
Mother Africa: My Home — Midtown West
Friday, December 2-Sunday, January 1, 2017
Every December, instead of mounting a traditional holiday show, the New Vic celebrates by importing a colorful circus spectacle. And we know from experience that Circus der Sinne's Mother Africa delivers a dazzling time. We raved about the last iteration of this exuberant, pan-African pageant, featuring incredible live music and dancing, gorgeous tribal-inspired costumes, and acrobats, contortionists, and other athletes, who buzz with energy, enthusiasm, pride, and joy. Though this edition is set in Cape Town, South Africa, the performers hail from nations including Tanzania, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and the Ivory Coast. It's an amazing, multicultural treat that gets you into the spirit of the season. Want to make the experience extra special? The Saturday, December 10 performance at 7pm is Mommy Poppins Night, featuring interactive pre-show activities, a $25 gift card per family for Schnipper's Quality Kitchen around the corner, and 25 percent off tickets.
The Laurie Berkner Band 2016 Holiday Celebration Concert — Upper West Side
Saturday, December 3
Catch preschool rock icon Laurie Berkner and her band as they play their annual holiday concert at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. The set list includes traditional seasonal favorites such as "Jingle Bells" and "Frosty the Snowman," plus original tunes off the group's album, A Laurie Berkner Christmas, including "Santa's Coming to My House Tonight." Hanukkah is also celebrated with "Candle Chase" and "The Dreidel Song," and, of course, evergreen greatest hits such as "We Are The Dinosaurs," "Victor Vito," and "Pig On Her Head" are also on tap. As always, this is an interactive affair, so make sure the tots come ready to dance and sing along. If you really want to splurge, $100 VIP seats include a post-performance Berkner meet-and-greet.
Holiday Sing-Along with Dan Zanes and Friends — Tribeca
Sunday, December 4
For the sixth year in a row, the Grammy-winning family rocker celebrates the holidays at City Winery with a sing- and dance-along show. Enjoy catchy tunes from the legendary performer's genre-busting, parent-approved albums, including songs from his 2012 release Christmas in Concord. Zanes does this intimate holiday concert every year and it always sells out, so be sure to buy your tickets ASAP.
Kids Night on Broadway Tickets Go on Sale — Citywide
Tuesday, December 6
There are some wonderful Broadway shows for families. In fact, the only thing that isn't kid-friendly about them is the price—orchestra seats usually run $150 and up. That's why we love the annual Kids Night on Broadway deal: Buy one full-price adult ticket to a participating show and snag a FREE child's seat (ages 6-18) for performances on Tuesday, February 28, 2017. Why are we telling you now? Because KNOB tickets go on sale 10:30am on Tuesday, December 6, and seats to hot shows such as Wicked, The Lion King, and Aladdin tend to sell out within minutes. If you've already seen those stalwarts, it's worth checking the entire list as plenty of new productions are included. Just keep an eye on appropriate ages because many are recommended for 12 and older. If you miss KNOB, don't fret: two-for-one Broadway Week tickets go on sale January 5, and that deal is open to theatergoers of all ages.
Dreamlands Family Day at the Whitney Museum — Meatpacking District
Saturday, December 10
We've been big fans of everything the Whitney Museum offers art lovers of all ages since it opened last year. While it's a wonderful cultural destination on any day, it's especially kid-friendly on a Family Day. Doors open early to families so they can explore before the general public, and special creative activities are led by artists. For this edition, kids can check out the current Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art exhibit, and then participate in Unravel: a collaborative, handmade, 16-mm filmmaking project. Stick around to see your masterpiece projected on the big screen. This special event kicks off at 9:30am, and buying advance tickets is recommended. Like to sleep in on the weekends? Come anytime before noon and you still can enjoy gallery tours and art-making. Free with museum admission.
RELATED: 21 NYC Holiday Activities Every Kid Should Try Once
It's a Victorian-age holiday celebration at the Winter Family Fair at the Morgan Library & Museum. Photo by Joshua Winata/courtesy of the museum.
Winter Family Fair — Murray Hill
Sunday, December 11
Enjoy an old-fashioned celebration at the Morgan's Victorian era-style holiday fete for families in conjunction with its annual display of Charles Dickens' original A Christmas Carol manuscript. Meet Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, the famous ghosts, and the author himself as portrayed by members of the Grand Falloons troupe. Kids also can enjoy holiday movies; strolling magicians, musicians, and other entertainers; art projects led by educators; and dressing up in period costumes for retro photo shoots. The afternoon closes with a festive concert of Christmas carols. Free with museum admission.
Reading of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas — Washington Heights
Sunday, December 18
Get into the holiday spirit old-school-style at the Church of the Intercession. For the 106th year in a row, Clement Clarke Moore’s ode to Christmas will be read aloud, this time by WABC-TV Eyewitness News anchor Sade Baderinwa. Afterward, enjoy caroling, a lantern-lit procession to the poet's grave at nearby Trinity Cemetery, a commemorative wreath laying, and complimentary hot cocoa. FREE
Phil Kline's Unsilent Night rocks New York on December 18. Photos by Taylor Davidson/courtesy of the event.
Unsilent Night — Greenwich Village, East Village
Sunday, December 18
An offbeat alternative to traditional Christmas caroling: Help create a "sound sculpture" by blasting the music of avant garde composer Phil Kline. Participants broadcast one of the four parts of Kline's "Unsilent Night" score on boom boxes, smartphones, or MP3 players as they parade from Washington Square Park to Tompkins Square Park. Download the music online, get the free app, or show up early to snag a free CD or cassette tape (remember those?). Participants should arrive at least 15 minutes before the kickoff. If you don't want to march you can always listen from the sidelines. FREE
Make Music Winter — Manhattan and Brooklyn
Wednesday, December 21
Mark the winter solstice with a series of FREE, interactive, outdoor concerts. Inspired by the success of the original Make Music event, which takes place June 21 each year, in 2011 the founders launched a similar (if smaller) edition on December 21, with a baker's dozen of musical parades taking place in Manhattan and northern Brooklyn. You can peruse the full schedule on the website, but best bets for families include sonic cycling near the Staten Island Terminal, a bell procession around the East Village, and a high-tech soundscape on the High Line that involves an app on your smartphone. All of these participatory experiences are FREE. Just show up and make some noise.
RELATED: Best Nutcracker Shows Around NYC for Kids and Families
Catch the New York Theatre Ballet’s Nutcracker at Brookfield Place for FREE December 2-3. Photos by Rachel Neville/courtesy of New York Theatre Ballet.
Month-Long Holiday Destination: Brookfield Place — Battery Park
With its picturesque plaza on the Hudson River, high-end Hudson Eats food court, frequent art installations, special events, and proximity to fabulous playgrounds, Brookfield Place is a great destination for families year-round. But it's particularly magical in December thanks to its festive holiday programming. For the second year in a row, its Luminaries installation offers a colorful light show synced to holiday standards every half hour in the atrium from Friday December 2 through Sunday, January 29. On Friday, December 2 and Saturday, December 3, catch a FREE, hour-long performance of The Nutcracker by New York Theatre Ballet. Santa will be on site from Friday, December 2 through Christmas Eve to hear wish lists and pose for pics with little ones. And there's an outdoor ice skating rink that offers lovely views of Lady Liberty. Who needs Rock Center when Brookfield Place offers all of this?
NYC always has so many incredible things going on, especially around the holidays, that it's difficult to include all the options. So here are 12 more cool events that are worth considering for your December calendar.
Gawk at some of NYC's most spectacular holiday homes in the outer boroughs. FREE
Geek out at the Queens comic book and sci-fi convention WinterCon on Saturday, December 3 and Sunday, December 4.
Give to a great cause and go to a party: A $100 donation to the New York Public Library snags you two invites to its festive holiday open house, featuring caroling, puppet shows, and crafts on Sunday, December 4.
Enjoy hands-on experiments and activities at City of Science Day at Staten Island's South Shore YMCA on December 4. FREE
All aboard for Historical Train Weekend at the New-York Historical Society on Saturday, December 10 and Sunday, December 11, inspired by its Holiday Express: Toys and Trains from the Jerni Collection display. Included in museum admission.
Hear holiday tunes in a whole new way at the annual Tuba Christmas concert at Rockefeller Center on Sunday, December 11. FREE
Celebrate the Festival of Lights at the 92nd Street Y's Chanukah Festival on Sunday, December 18.
Singers of all faiths can enjoy caroling under the arch in Washington Square Park on Christmas Eve. FREE
Does your family observe Hanukkah? Celebrate the Jewish holiday on Christmas Day at the Eldridge Street Museum's all-afternoon bash.
Hit the Queens County Farm Museum's annual holiday open house for tours, crafts, and freshly mulled cider from Monday, December 26 to Wednesday, December 28. FREE
Learn about the seven guiding principles of Kwanzaa and catch live performances by American Idol star Ruben Studdard and Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music students at the American Museum of Natural History's annual festival on Friday, December 30. Free with museum admission.
Brave the cold and ring in the New Year at Prospect Park's fireworks show on Wednesday, December 31. FREE