My New York Obsession

Why I Can’t Get Enough of NYC’s Holiday Lights

The twinkling is just the beginning!

Photo by Diane Bondareff/Courtesy of AP Images for Macy’s

I love Christmas so much; I’m what one might call a Christmas fanatic. It’s in my blood. When I was a kid, I used to go out into the Maine woods with my dad to find the perfect tree. We’d take our time choosing—Is it this one? Oh, this one is nice, too!—then we’d chop it down (yeah, I can ax), carry it out in the snow, strap it to the truck, and, finally, hoist it up in the living room. I’m still a kid during the holiday season, and am very much looking forward to heading up to Maine to cut a tree with my dad again this year; I wouldn’t miss it for the world!

leah bonnema
Me and my dad. / Photo courtesy of Leah Bonnema

I’m all in on Christmas: I love the music, I love the movies, I love the lights!

Perhaps I’ll even grab a hot beverage on my walk and pretend I’m part of a Christmas movie; I get wild. 

And boy oh boy, does New York City do lights! I start getting worked up around mid-October because I know it’s right around the Halloween corner. While others might say “too early,” I’m secretly already wearing my Santa socks, eager for the day the pharmacies flip their candle aisles and start playing Mariah Carey on repeat. A Hallmark Christmas movie in October?! Yes, please.

Then it happens. The temperature drops. We get out our scarves and layers of jackets. (I tell everyone I know who’s not from a cold climate that they need to stop wearing cotton socks and switch to a polypro mix—another responsibility of being from Maine.) Lights all around the city come on. And it begins!

There are so many places to see light displays in Manhattan, but I want to share with you my three favorite spots. I like to visit them just after sundown because that’s when everything sparkles and feels extra-crisp. Perhaps I’ll even grab a hot beverage on my walk and pretend I’m part of a Christmas movie; I get wild. 

When in the city during the holiday season, one must visit Rockefeller Center. My recommendation would be to come in from the West Side, by Sixth Avenue, walking toward the tree, and oh that tree! You’ll pass the ice-skating rink—perhaps thinking, I can’t believe I live here, or I’ve seen that in movies—and walk toward Saks Fifth Avenue, following the golden angels with all their glorious lights. As you approach Fifth Avenue you might notice a light show…on the side of a building?! Is this really happening?! Yeah, yeah it is. They made a whole light show on the side of a building! It plays every couple of minutes. (Maybe it’s every 15; I don’t know exactly. Time becomes irrelevant, and I’ve sat there forever and watched until my tush froze.) The entire event is orchestrated to music. Can you imagine?! The talent! It’s like the Super Bowl of holiday lights. Complete magic. Gets me every year. 

saks fifth avenue holiday lights
Photo courtesy of Saks Fifth Avenue/Facebook

Then there’s Fifth Avenue. You’ll want to start at Saks and walk north, ending at Central Park (if you’re feeling extra-holiday extraordinary, you can always close out the night watching people skate in the park hello!). The window dressings on Fifth are unbelievable. Who are these window dressers?! Were they raised in a magic land of lights? When do they start planning?! The day after the previous New Year’s Eve? So creative. So shiny. So merry and bright!

lincoln center holiday lights
Photo courtesy of Winter’s Eve/Facebook

My third walk—I always try to travel by foot between my comedy shows, especially during the holiday season to get that crisp spring in my step and twinkle in my toes—is down Broadway. I’d suggest a stroll from around 72nd Street to the Time Warner Building (which always does it up glam and, importantly, has a terrific bathroom on the second floor for anyone who might need to pee). All the trees are lit up on the median, and, of course, you pass the gorgeous Lincoln Center looking all dressed up in her winter finest. It’s extraordinarily beautiful! Throw on a scarf, take your earbuds out, and get yourself a hot cocoa. You are a Christmas movie!

macy's holiday lights
Photo by Diane Bondareff/Courtesy of AP Images for Macy’s

Quick note: I know I said I was giving you my three favorite holiday light locations in Manhattan, but I feel obligated to mention that, of course, one must also visit Herald Square to see the Macy’s window displays and “Believe” sign. One just must!

Wishing everyone their own twinkle this year. Shine bright!

Leah Bonnema is celebrating the season by doing a Twelve Days of Christmas Movie Classics Countdown with fellow comedian Caitlin Peluffo. Be sure to follow “A PeluffOnnema Christmas” on her Instagram (@LeahBonnema) and YouTube to watch the magic unfold.