What makes the holiday season so beloved around the world? Some may tout the delicious food, the beautiful Christmas lights in big cities like New York, Paris and London, or the traditional songs that seem to float through the air at all times. Above all, there’s one thing that seems to make holiday time special year after year: beloved traditions that fill the season with magic! Those traditions can also be one of the best ways to familiarize yourself with the charm and culture of a new city, so in the spirit of the holidays, we at New York Habitat have compiled a guide to some of the loveliest seasonal traditions to give you a taste of what makes our favorite destinations so special at this time of year! As always, we still offer you the chance to stay in a furnished apartment or vacation rental that truly immerses you in the local experience of a new city. Check out our apartment rentals and see how the locals celebrate for an authentic holiday experience you’ll never forget!
Holidays in New York: The seat of American traditions
The holiday season is one of the most popular times of the year for tourism in New York City, and it’s not hard to see why: New York’s traditions are known the world over for being stunning and spectacular! One of the most famous landmarks in New York at Christmastime is the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza. As such, the annual Christmas tree lighting in Rockefeller Center has become a beloved tradition. Celebrity hosts, musical performances and of course, the dazzling first burst of the lights, fill the air with holiday cheer! The tree is lit November 28 and stays lit until January 7, 2019.
Speaking of lights, you can thank a native New Yorker for the twinkly lights on your tree! The invention of Christmas lights is widely credited to Edward Johnson and Thomas Edison, who displayed his electric Christmas lights for the first time in 1882 at his home on Fifth Avenue.
Another significant holiday tradition in New York is the celebration of Hanukkah by the city’s sizeable Jewish population. Hanukkah is nicknamed “The Festival of Lights” and lasts 8 nights. The holiday kicks off with the first lighting of the menorah, and you can see the world’s largest menorah as it’s lit on December 2 in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. Other Hanukkah events include the December 3 Latke Festival at the Brooklyn Museum and the Seaport District Hanukkah Party on December 4. You can also just get familiar with Jewish traditions at any time of the year by visiting Jewish neighborhoods like the Lower East Side or scoping out some delicious food at an authentic NYC Jewish deli!
Besides the dazzling lights, many of America’s most cherished Christmas traditions have their birthplace in New York City! New York was established by Dutch settlers in the 17th century, who brought with them the celebration of the Feast of Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas on December 6. Many attribute the modern-day figure of Santa Claus in the United States to these Dutch settlers, and New York still celebrates these roots! You can visit a traditional Sinterklaas celebration at the Wyckoff Farmhouse in Canarsie, Brooklyn on December 2, or the Onderdonk House in Ridgewood, Queens on December 4. If you prefer a more modern Santa visit and photo op for kids, visit the most famous Santa Claus in NYC at Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square!
Some of the most beloved holiday stories around the world are also a direct export of the state of New York! Clement Clark Moore, hailing from Chelsea, New York City, first published the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” or as it’s more widely known, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” in 1823, and Robert May from New Rochelle is credited with the creation of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Though Charles Dickens was from London, the original manuscript of his Christmas tale A Christmas Carol was purchased by famous New Yorker JP Morgan and can be viewed during the Christmas season on display at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. Finally, no one can forget the story of Miracle on 34th Street, which was famously based in Midtown, New York! Visit some of the film’s locations by walking around Herald Square and the New York Supreme Court House in Lower Manhattan to get in the Christmas spirit.
Rounding out our list is one of the most revered traditions in New York City; the Christmas Eve midnight mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The cathedral is one of the most famous churches in the country and has become a prominent tourist attraction, but on Christmas Eve the church fills up for a traditional Catholic Mass and is not open to the public unless you reserve a ticket ahead of time. You can, however, visit the church’s children’s service at 5:30 pm on Christmas Eve without a ticket, or visit the cathedral during the season as its lofty sanctuary is decorated with poinsettias and wreaths for the holiday.
Rent an apartment like this 2-bedroom vacation rental in Washington Heights for a truly traditional holiday experience! The apartment is also available as a longer-term furnished rental for extended stays in New York. The unit is ideal for partaking in various New York holiday traditions thanks to a spacious living area for decorations, a working fireplace for cozy ambience (and hanging stockings for Santa!), and a dining table for enjoying a Christmas or Hanukkah dinner. In addition, this apartment is highly rated and recommended for anyone who wants to integrate with the local experience—a past tenant, Mary M., described the apartment as “truly a home away from home!” making it a great choice for enjoying the comforts of home during the season.
The quaint Christmases of Paris
In Paris, as with the entire country of France, the holidays are very much a family affair. Many Paris traditions are more focused around thoughtfulness, reflection, and feasting with family. Christmas celebrations are also more flexible in Paris, as Parisians may opt to give gifts on the night of Reveillon (December 24), or Saint Nicholas Day (December 6). Regardless, the children of France look forward to the Christmas season all year and may write letters to Père Noël (France’s version of Santa Claus), which are, by law, required to be answered with a return postcard by the French postal service! Writing letters to Père Noël is sure to be an activity the kids will love during your time in Paris.
The French also look forward to Christmas by creating a crèche, a miniature model of the Christmas Nativity. While they are most popular in the South of France, multiple churches and cathedrals in Paris create crèche scenes that are open to all to visit and admire. See the crèche displays at Notre Dame Cathedral, the Madeleine Church, and Eglise Saint-Jean Baptiste for a true Paris Christmas experience.
Paris’s holiday traditions don’t start and end with Christmas! On December 6, you can catch the observance of Saint Nicholas Day, during which many Parisians enjoy a special meal, and you can find the bakeries of Paris selling themed treats like gingerbread biscuits and Mannele (a type of brioche).
On December 24, many Parisians also celebrate Reveillon, a long feast that goes into the early hours of the morning and is typically enjoyed as a family gathering. Visit a Paris market to pick up some fresh ingredients to prepare a Reveillon feast of your own (it’s typically one of the fanciest meals of most Parisians’ year).
Finally, January 6 marks the holiday of Epiphany, a feast day that is typically celebrated with the consumption of a special dessert called galette des rois. It’s tradition to hide a small figurine in the cake, and whoever finds the figurine in their slice is honored as “king” with a paper crown!
The home is a very important space during the Paris holidays, which is why a bright, cheery and elegant apartment like this 2-bedroom furnished rental in Montorgueil is a must for the season! The entire space is decorated in a pastel color palette to make the space extra warm and welcoming for gathering with family. Of course, with so many Paris traditions that involve a special meal, you’ll want an extravagant dining area as well, and this apartment delivers! The dining room is decorated with antique-style furnishings, artwork, and a chandelier to add a touch of luxury and atmosphere to your feast. Meanwhile, the full kitchen is equipped with ample counter space, updated appliances and a dishwasher for some serious traditional cooking!
Traditions in London: Family, friends and food
The spirit of London at Christmastime has been captured extensively in film and literature, and perhaps it’s due to London’s emphasis on good cheer and time with loved ones. In fact, embracing loved ones has become a ritual itself in London thanks to the traditional use of mistletoe during the holiday season! The tradition began in the 18th century and so goes that whenever two people stand under the mistletoe, they must kiss for good luck.
Christmas in London gets quite musical as well, as the tradition of caroling largely began in England and continues to this day! Modern-day carolers usually collect money for charity, and throughout the season, you can catch groups of carolers in London’s popular tourist attractions like King’s Cross Station, Trafalgar Square and more. Also popular during the Christmas season are pantomime shows. The seasonal shows are usually fairytale retellings and involve song, dance, slapstick comedy and general lightheartedness.
On Christmas Day, many Brits also celebrate their national community by gathering round to watch a televised speech from Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen’s Christmas Message addresses the year’s events and the personal milestones and seasonal tidings from the crown. It’s a great way to participate in the English Christmas season and can be viewed from the comfort of your apartment when you have a television!
When December 25 rolls around, it’s all about the Christmas dinner! A British Christmas dinner is known for “turkey with all the trimmings,” or turkey served with roast potatoes, vegetables, gravy, Yorkshire pudding, sausages and cranberry sauce. Additionally, when the turkey has been eaten, the roast’s wishbone is often pulled apart for good luck—whoever breaks off the larger piece is said to have their wish come true!
On a traditional British table, you’ll also find Christmas crackers, a novelty item that is traditionally pulled apart by 2 people to reveal prizes—usually a small toy or trinket and a joke or saying on a slip of paper. The fun of pulling apart a Christmas cracker is also in the loud popping noise that gives the item its name.
The day after Christmas, Londoners also observe Boxing Day. The annual holiday brings out huge sales and price reductions (a prime time to go shopping in London!) and the country’s premiere football leagues usually play matches which are broadcast on television. Use the holiday to go out shopping, or stay in, brew a cup of tea and relax after the holidays!
However you choose to participate in London holiday traditions, this 1-bedroom vacation rental in Southwark is versatile enough to handle it. The apartment is contemporary and laid-back for a holiday with friends or solo, but also has a large enough kitchen to prepare all the trimmings for your turkey! The dining table has a sleek contemporary look that will give you the coolest-looking base for your holiday feast. When Boxing Day comes, you’ll be treated to huge mirrored closets for storing all your sale goodies, or you can relax in the open living room or on the balcony and enjoy the football matches. This rental certainly subverts tradition, but has all the features to accommodate whatever type of holiday you’re in the mood to celebrate.
There are lots of reasons to visit New York, Paris or London: whether it’s for vacation, for work, or as a student, you’ll likely want to experience life in your new city as much as possible! Fortunately, the holidays are a great time to live locally for this very reason—the chance to experience cherished local traditions is what strips away any facades and shows the authentic feel of a city. To further that authentic feel, celebrate your holiday by renting with New York Habitat. Our accommodations, from classic brownstones in New York to stylish studios in Paris to furnished flats in London, are adored by locals and visitors alike and will make the perfect place from which to explore the city’s charming traditions.