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Brighter lights, holiday city

By Marie Elena Martinez
Globe Correspondent / November 21, 2010

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On Thanksgiving morning, as Santa Claus and the Radio City Rockettes make their way down 7th Avenue, New York transforms itself into a wonderland. Buildings twinkle with lights, holiday music floats through the air, and skating rinks reopen to winter’s arrival. Welcome to the city’s 2010 holiday season.

Macy’s Parade A tradition since 1927, the excitement begins around 4 p.m. the day before as crowds gather to watch the massive helium balloons slowly come to life near the Museum of Natural History. The next morning, millions of spectators line the streets well before the 84th annual parade’s 9 a.m. start. From the reaches of the Upper West Side to Midtown viewing locations abound, but prime spots include the west side of Columbus Circle, 42d Street between 6th and 7th avenues, and 6th Avenue between 42d and 34th streets. social.macys.com/parade2010; balloon inflation and parade start: 77th Street and Co lumbus Avenue; end: 7th Avenue and 34th Street

Lighting the lights Five days later, when the food coma wears off, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree will be lighted for the first time. From 7-9 p.m. on Nov. 30, the tree, traditionally a Norway spruce, is illuminated by 30,000 eco-friendly lights and crowned by a Swarovski crystal star. West 49th Street between 5th and 6th avenues, www.rockefellercenter.com Hanukkah is the celebration of lights, so it follows that the lighting of the Hanukkah Menorah in Grand Army Plaza is a marquee event. Starting Dec. 1, Hanukkah’s first night, a candle on the 32-foot-tall, two-ton menorah is set ablaze. On the eighth night there is live music, singing, folk dancing, and latkes. 59th Street and Fifth Avenue

Season’s shows The Radio City Christmas Spectacular (through Dec. 30), which debuted in 1933, includes the world-famous Rockettes performing their beloved March of the Wooden Soldiers, a living nativity, and magnificent special effects. Radio City Music Hall, 1260 Avenue of the Americas, 212-307-7171, www.radiocity christmas.com, $45 mezzanine-$105 premium seating)

In its final season, Cirque de Soleil’s “Wintuk’’ (through Jan. 2) follows a boy’s search for snow. Weaving breathtaking acrobatics with theatrical effects, Wintuk’s journey is a treat for all ages. Theater at Madison Square Garden, 4 Penn Plaza, 866-858-0008, www.cirquedusoleil.com/en/ shows/wintuk, $30 mezzanine-$220 premium seating, children save 30 percent

Each winter, the New York City Ballet inspires a new cadre of ballerinas with its staging of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker,’’ the story of a little girl’s flight through toy soldiers, cunning mice, a gifted nutcracker, and sugarplum fairies (through Jan. 2). David H. Koch Theater, 20 Lincoln Center, 212-870-5570; www.nycballet.com/nutcracker/nutcracker.html, $200-$225

Based on the hit movie, “Elf’’ is the story of a North Pole orphan who embarks on a journey to New York to win over his family, and help the city remember the true meaning of Christmas. Al Hirschfeld Theater, 302 West 45th St., 212-239-6200, www.elf musical.com, $39 mezzanine-$352 premium seating

Weekend Caroling at South Street Seaport features the Big Apple Chorus, the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, the Young New Yorkers’ Chorus, and Cantori New York on Fridays at 6 and 7 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 3 and 4 p.m. through Dec. 19. Free roving song at the Seaport might be the best deal going. www.southstreetseaport.com

Shopping Unveiled in time for Thanksgiving, department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdales, Lord & Taylor, Bergdorf Goodman, Macy’s, and Barneys never disappoint visitors with their stunning holiday-themed window displays. The huge sales — especially on post-Thanksgiving Black Friday — sweep shoppers through the doors once they have ogled the displays.

For original gift giving, indoor and outdoor markets such as those at Columbus Circle, Bryant Park, Union Square, and Grand Central Terminal feature the products of local craftsmen. Open between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, handcrafted jewelry, fine art, clothes, handmade ornaments, and toys for all ages are in abundance.

Ice skating The Ice Rink at Rockefeller Center has come to signify the quintessential New York experience. Every 90 minutes starting at 8:30 a.m., beneath the gilded Prometheus statue and with an urban backdrop like no other, New Yorkers and visitors alike strap on their skates. 5th Avenue between 49th and 50th streets, 212-332-7654, www.therinkatrockcenter.com, adults $19, children $12.50, rentals $9

A twirl through Central Park’s Wollman Rink offers a more natural skating environment. Open every day from 10 a.m., Wollman is located on the east side of the park, near the zoo. 59th and 5th Avenue entrance, 212-439-6900, www.wollmanskatingrink.com, weekend prices: adults $14.75, children $5.75, rentals $6.25

Visiting with Santa Were you naughty or nice? Macy’s Santaland, on the 8th floor of the Herald Square store, is open daily through Dec. 24. Photos with Santa are available for purchase. 151 West 34th St., 212-695-4400, www.macys.com

South Street Seaport’s Story Time With Santa is a different way to spend time with the man in red. Noon-2 p.m. on weekends through Dec. 20. Pier 17 Atrium, 3d floor, www.southstreetseaport .com, free

For extra nice children, Santa and his elves are hosting Breakfast at the Rock Center Café through Christmas Eve. A skating session on the neighboring rink is included in the price. 20 West 50th St., 212-332-7620, adults $45, children $40, reservations essential

Seasonal exhibits At the Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden (through Jan. 9), explore replicas of over 100 historic New York landmarks, including the Brooklyn Bridge, Yankee Stadium, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, made entirely of plant materials, as model trains speed by on a half-mile of track. Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, Bronx River Parkway at Fordham Road, 718-817-8700, $20, under age 12 $10

The Jewish Museum will unveil A Hanukkah Project: Daniel Libeskind’s Line Of Fire through Jan. 30. Libeskind, an international figure in architecture and design, created this installation with a selection of Hanukkah lamps from the museum’s collection. 1109 5th Ave. at 92d Street, 212-423-3200, www.thejewishmuseum.org, $12, under 12 free, Saturdays free

Through Jan. 9, the tony Le Parker Meridien hotel will host its second Gingerbread Extravaganza, during which local bakeries display their tantalizing, large-scale confections. All proceeds will benefit City Harvest, an organization that feeds hungry New Yorkers. 119 West 56th St., 212-245-5000, www.parkermeridien.com, $1

Christmas dinners It’s often hard to find a good meal when you’re traveling over Christmas. Here are some surefire bets for the eve and day:

Downtown, Mario Batali’s Lupa will be serving the Feast of Seven Fishes (La Vigilia) on Christmas Eve, as well as its regular menu. 170 Thompson St., 212-982-5089, www.luparestaurant.com, $85

Off Union Square, Tocqueville is offering a three-course dinner on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day that focuses on Greenmarket-inspired French-American cuisine. 1 East 15th St., 212-647-1515, www.tocque villerestaurant.com, $95

Housed in the Ritz-Carlton overlooking Central Park, BLT Market and chef Laurent Tourondel are featuring a three-course Christmas menu. 1430 Avenue of the Americas, 212-521-6125, www.bltmarket.com, $95

Need more information? Drop by the Official NYC Information Center, which offers maps, brochures, Metro tickets, Broadway discounts, destination passes, and seasonal advice. 810 7th Ave. (at 53d Street), 212-484-1200, www.nycgo.com

Marie Elena Martinez can be reached at www.marieelenamartinez.com.