Christmas in NYC: Park Avenue Tree Lighting

New York is famous for the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and the television event surrounding its illumination.

But for Scott and me, the annual Park Avenue Tree Lighting - which we went to last night - has become a favorite holiday tradition.  Hands down, it is the best holiday event you have never heard of.

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Every year, on the first Sunday night of December, tens of thousands Upper East Siders and visitors gather outside the Brick Presbyterian Church at 91st Street and Park Avenue to sing Christmas carols and cheer the lighting of 104 fir trees that line Park Avenue from 97th Street down to 54th Street.  Multiple blocks of Park are shut down to accommodate the crowds that gather north and south of the church along the Avenue.

The tradition started in 1945 to honor those who sacrificed their lives in the war.  I first read about it many years before I moved New York, and once Scott and I moved to the Upper East Side four years ago, it became one of the highlights of our holiday season.  (No - we don't live on Park Avenue, but love that it is only a few blocks west of our apartment.)

The service is conducted by the Brick Church, with several ministers, musicians and the children's choir leading the festivities.  Old-fashioned caroling (programs and carol sheets are passed around the crowds, or just download the program to your phone); prayers and readings; the playing of "Taps" by a bugler - and a moment of remembrance for those who lost their lives in war.

The event has a decidedly small-town, neighborhood feel to it.  Walking around, hot chocolate or coffee in hand, people visit with neighbors, children play in the street and you see smiles and laughter all around.  You'll spot more than a few Santa hats as well.  Even with all the people, it never really feels crowded (unlike Rockefeller Center, which has to cram a lot of people into a relatively tiny space).

If you are ever in New York the first weekend of December, this is a great way to get out of the commercial and tourist areas and into residential neighborhoods - giving you a glimpse of one of the many reasons I love living in this city.