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14 Must-See Trees in NYC Besides Rockefeller Center

PHOTO: Colin Miller

All I want for Christmas is spruce.

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is synonymous with the start of New York City’s holiday scene, with crowds continuously flocking there to get a glimpse of, and a good photo near, this centerpiece. While this iconic tree is definitely worthy of your time, there are other remarkable displays throughout the city that convey special meanings, have their own take on ornaments, and host holiday lightings that also bring out a solid number of viewers. From public institutions to hotels, make the trek to these tree display locations to make your spirit bright.

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Inside the Medieval Sculpture Hall, the staff at the Met–or also now referred to as the Met Fifth Avenue–installs the annual Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Crèche in mid-November. A 20-foot blue spruce is graced with more than 200 realistic nativity figures from Naples, Italy. These collections of cherubs and angels perched among these boughs date back to the 18th-century, with a topnotch Nativity scene at the tree’s base with key figures like the Magi and townspeople and even appearances by animals. The person to be thanked for this iconic presentation is Loretta Hines Howard, a painter and collector of crèche figures. In 1964, she donated her collection to the Met, thus creating what would continue to be the museum’s holiday seasonal masterpiece.

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PHOTO: Archives of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine
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The Cathedral of St. John the Divine

For just over 35 years, this cathedral in Morningside Heights has been displaying a Peace Tree fluttering with paper cranes as a symbol of peace and friendship between people of all faiths and backgrounds. These birdlike origami ornaments carry a great deal of meaning. Paper cranes are considered to be an ancient symbol of peace. In Asia, it’s said that folding 1,000 paper cranes can make a person’s wish come true. This believed task carries on in memory of Sasaki Sadako, a young Japanese girl who died at age 11 of leukemia resulting from exposure to atomic radiation and was unable to finish her folding project. At St. John the Divine, origami artist Lore Schirokauer initially designed all the cranes for the cathedral’s first Peace Tree. Others have also had a hand in folding a crane or two, including schoolchildren and members of St. John the Divine’s Artists-in-Residence program such as Philippe Petit, Paul Winter, and Judy Collins. Visitors will be able to view the tree throughout December.

INSIDER TIPAt various admission costs, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine offers tours of their building relating to cathedral arts and history.

 

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Lotte New York Palace

Once the residence of financier Henry Villard, this luxury hotel sets out a splendid 30-foot tree right in the center of its Courtyard, where the circa 1882 property’s Madison Avenue carriage entrance once stood. Embellished with more than 3,000 lights and other fine ornaments, the tree is ushered in with a performance in late November (2017 falling on Tuesday, November 28) that can brighten up the scene with some special guests– members of the New York City Rockettes.

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The New York Stock Exchange

Placed outside the NYSE on Broad Street between Wall Street and Exchange Place, this 60-foot tree gets stocked with 100 strands of multi-colored lights, 500 ornaments and topped a six-foot star. While this NYSE lighting has been ongoing since 1923, the annual lighting went dark only in 1973 due to the energy crisis. Over time, this lighting ceremony has turned into a festive extravaganza to include a lineup of celebrities, musicians, and listed companies. In the late 19th century, brokers would ring in the holiday with tin whistles and horns; occasionally, a saxophone quartet and a banjo player might be staged on the trading floor. Though in the last few years, the mood became more of a quieter one with a religious service at Trinity Church or caroling outside the Exchange.

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PHOTO: saebaryo/Flickr, [CC BY-ND 2.0]
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New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

This library branch known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building has holiday decor that’s picturesque of a greeting card. Within Astor Hall, a beautifully-decorated tree goes up in early November and remains on view through the end of the year. It shares the spotlight with other displayed symbols of holidays and cultures. And there’s a series of collection items relating to this festive season on view. Showings have included a true holiday classic: a copy of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that Dickens used for public readings, complete with the author’s handwritten notes.

INSIDER TIPMarvel at Patience and Fortitude, the statuesque library lions out front, as they’re dressed up for the holidays with wreaths placed around them.

 

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The Plaza Hotel

Apparently, the staff at this lux property across from Central Park puts in an overnight shift on Thanksgiving to give guests a nice surprise when they wake up the next morning and come down to the lobby. The Plaza gets a merry makeover with wreaths and garland covered in ornaments being strung outside and on every window. Yet its Fifth Avenue entrance is where the centerpiece goes–an 18-foot tree with 5,000 lights and 500 ornaments. And for 2017, the Plaza is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the film, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, with décor design plans tied to its noted hotel guest, Kevin McCallister (aka Macaulay Culkin).

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PHOTO: New York City Mayoral Photography Office
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Gracie Mansion

Even the official residence of the Mayor of the City New York gets ready for the holidays. Since 1942, when Fiorello La Guardia became the first mayor to live here, Christmas trees have been put up. A former country house named for merchant Archibald Gracie, and neighboring Carl Schultz Park, Gracie Mansion also has a claim to TV fame. Under the administration of Mayor John Lindsay, a fireplace on the property is the star of the legendary, hours-long Christmas Day broadcast of a burning Yule log with a Christmas carol-rotating soundtrack. Log aside, Gracie Mansion still has a tree display inaugurated usually on or just after December 8.

INSIDER TIPThe tree is viewable on public tours, which require reservation online.

 

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The New York Botanical Garden

While this sprawling National Historic landmark puts on its popular annual Holiday Train Show, opening right before Thanksgiving Day and continuing through mid-January, there is also a holiday tree display directly outside of this exhibition space. For 25 years now, the botanical garden has been seasonally sprucing up holiday trees, with a conifer displaylight up ( this year’s ceremony takes place on December 3).

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PHOTO: Elizabeth Shrier
9 OF 14

Bryant Park

Adjacent to the New York Public Library, this public park becomes a combination of an ice skating rink and holiday shopping venue known officially as the Bank of America Winter Village, featuring various booths by New York City-based vendors. It also has quite the towering tree display. Each year, its tree comes from a different location primarily within the Rockland, New York area (the 2017 tree is from Nanuet). Crowned with a custom-made tree-topper, the boughs are decorated with 30,000 lights and 3,000 ornaments. Consider bringing along your ice skates, as this rink is said to be the only one having free admission in the city (there is a fee for skate rentals).

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PHOTO: Roderick Mickens©American Museum of Natural History
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The American Museum of Natural History

This annual tradition involves a ton of paperwork. A volunteer army of origami artists gets folding year-round, creating over 1,000 models to ornate the museum’s 13-foot origami holiday tree. Each year, this tree gets a different look, with the chosen theme coinciding with what’s going on at the museum. Ornaments might reflect special exhibitions or acknowledge the museum’s massive artifacts and specimen collections (we’re talking more 34 million pieces!) Past décor displays have been all about microscopic life, mythical and real creatures, and floral, nautical or, of course, origami-related subjects.

INSIDER TIPDuring the holiday season, gaze upon two cheerfully lit 19-foot holiday barosaurus, located at the Museum’s main entrance on Central Park West at 79th Street.

 

11 OF 14

Central Park

A man-made body of water called “Harlem Meer” is the site where Central Park’s holiday trees are placed and lit. A flotilla of trees lingers on this lake, with the 2017 lighting scheduled for November 30. A 20+ year tradition, this annual lighting ceremony also features a live ice carving demonstration, carol singing, and a visit by Santa and his friends.

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PHOTO: Deborah Karson
12 OF 14

Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum

In The Bronx’s Pellham Bay Park, this 19th-century Greek-Revival mansion truly gets its halls decked. For the last seven years, this museum has become a holiday showroom showcasing festive trees and period rooms decorated by designers from the New York Metro area. An overall theme is picked every year—this year ischildren’s books–as the inspiration for their furnishings. And, of course, it’s the place for holding social gatherings. The finished work is unwrapped at the beginning of December with a holiday luncheon; other festivities during December include a family day and a cocktail party, plus additional walk-in hours of operation.

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Park Avenue Tree Lighting

This set of illuminating trees lined along Park Avenue has an important reason for happening during the holiday season. The tradition started in December 1945 as a way to honor the servicemen and women who died in World War II; nowadays these trees still serves as both a symbol of peace and a reminder of the sacrifices made by those who attain it. The lighting ceremony happens in early December, outside of the Brick Presbyterian Church, at Park Avenue and 91st Street, a crew of electricians manually turning on the trees’ white-colored lights upon the church’s minister giving the verbal cue, “let there be light.” A total of 104 trees from Nova Scotia remain lit through mid-January.

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PHOTO: Jess Brey
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Queens Botanical Garden

Based at the northeast corner of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, this urban oasis hosts “Christmas in the Garden,” an event in early December (the 2017 event falls on Sunday, December 3) that concludes with a tree lighting. The occasion also extends to a garden tour, photos with Santa for a fee, and musical performances. Its tree lighting portion gets ceremonial as a capella singers lead a countdown in which a 30-foot tree brightens up with more than 10,000 lights.