April may be the cruelest month, but December, the darkest, can feel unkind, too. New York, however, offers its own illumination during these long, blustery nights, and not just Rockefeller Center’s seasonal sparkle. Here’s a guide to some of the lavish light displays across the city, including twinkling and towering sculptures, Chinese-style lantern shows and giant menorahs. You will usually find food, entertainment and family activities here, as well as glowing LED artifice: fairy palaces, alluring sweets, roaring dinosaurs — and lots of pandas.
RanDalls Island Park
Imagine waking up inside an anime cartoon. LuminoCity, a 16-acre extravaganza, even has its own hero from another universe: Lumi, a magical light bulb. Resembling a benevolent Pokémon, Lumi appears — in lantern form — throughout the displays, offering amazed commentary in recorded, childlike narration. You (and he) explore the exhibits, which Xiaoyi Chen, LuminoCity’s founder, has patterned after the lantern festival in Zigong, China.
Sculpted in steel and covered in satin, LuminoCity’s enormous lanterns occupy environments like the Winter Fantasy, which includes Santa’s sleigh and a towering castle. The Wild Adventure features dinosaurs, as well as a miniature Bifengxia Panda Reserve. My favorite display was in the Sweet Dream environment: a giant waving cat — a symbol of good luck — surrounded by 12 smaller ones representing real feline Instagram stars. LuminoCity also offers performances, themed nights, a heated marketplace and shuttle bus service to and from 125th Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan. (But if you book the bus, wait on the street and not — as I did — on the avenue.) Through Jan. 5; luminocityfestival.com.
NYC Winter Lantern Festival
This 10-acre site is illuminating, and not only because of its more than 1,200 huge lanterns. As I traveled through the music-filled displays, I learned that the mythical Chinese phoenix has the face of a swallow and the tail of a fish, and that pandas spend 14 to 16 hours a day eating bamboo. In addition to exploring environments representing these and other creatures, visitors can stroll the Dinosaur Path, which includes lanterns of a Tyrannosaurus rex and a feather-crested velociraptor.
The festival, easily reached by a free shuttle bus from the Staten Island Ferry terminal, also appeals because of its location at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden. On Lantern Fest Fridays in December, the neighboring Staten Island Museum, Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art and Noble Maritime Collection stay open until 8 p.m. The festival also has a heated tent, outdoor live performances, a skating rink and the glittering Starry Alley, where eight marriage proposals were made last year. Through Jan. 12; 888-718-4253, nycwinterlanternfestival.com.
Brooklyn and Manhattan
Hanukkah, which begins at sundown on Sunday, is the Jewish Festival of Lights. But while most menorahs softly illuminate homes, these two — in Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn, and Grand Army Plaza, Manhattan — will light up the sky. Commemorating the ancient Hanukkah miracle, when one small container of oil used to rededicate the Jerusalem temple lasted for eight days, the enormous menorahs also burn oil, with glass chimneys to protect the flames. Lighting the lamps, each over 30 feet tall, is a feat itself, requiring cranes and lifts.
On Sunday at 4 p.m., crowds will gather in Brooklyn with Chabad of Park Slope for latkes and a concert by the Hasidic singer Yehuda Green, followed by the lighting of the first candle. At 5:30 p.m., Senator Chuck Schumer will accompany Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman, director of the Lubavitch Youth Organization, to do the honors in Manhattan, where revelers will also enjoy treats and Dovid Haziza’s music. Although all the menorahs’ candles won’t be ablaze until the festival’s eighth day — there are nightly festivities — this year the Manhattan lamp, decked in glittering rope lights, will be a brilliant beacon all week. Through Dec. 29; 646-298-9909, largestmenorah.com; 917-287-7770, chabad.org/5thavemenorah.
Bronx Zoo Holiday Lights
The most dazzling animals I encountered here had no need of LED technology: They were Owlexandria, a fierce-looking spectacled owl, and Quincy, a resplendent Eurasian eagle owl, whose handler allows evening visitors to pose with them for pictures. Almost all other creatures at the after-hours Holiday Lights show, however, are luminescent creations, often accompanied by vivid wildlife sounds. Outlined in glittering lights, some appear to move or fly as a result of the sequenced illumination of different silhouettes. Others, like those along the Animal Lantern Safari trail — you enter through a sculptured shark’s belly — are silk-and-steel models whose wings or heads may subtly shift. (I especially enjoyed the lemurs in the trees.)
The zoo, which has revived Holiday Lights for the first time since 2007, also features roaming carolers, ice-carving demonstrations and a Christmas tree that’s a light show in itself. On Friday the zoo begins a festival within the festival: Ice Jubilee, which includes an ice throne, a 20-foot ice slide and, for adults weary of holiday shopping, an ice bar. Through Jan. 5; 718-220-5100, bronxzoo.com.
Dreaming of a tropical Christmas? Nestled among the palm trees in the airy Winter Garden at Brookfield Place, this light installation is entirely indoors. Designed by the LAB at Rockwell Group, the display consists of 647 acrylic LED lanterns in sherbet hues, suspended from the complex’s ceiling in a Mondrian-like grid. Every hour on the hour, shoppers and diners can watch digitally programmed light shows. The lanterns change color and intensity in dizzying patterns, while a seasonal soundtrack plays. But the installation’s greatest connection to the holidays is its three wishing stations. Touch one, and your “wish” initiates a miniature light show overhead. This artificial magic does real-world good: For every wish, Brookfield Place will donate $1, up to a total of $25,000, to Cookies for Kids’ Cancer, a national research nonprofit. Through Jan. 3; 212-978-1673, bfplny.com.
Hello Panda Festival
This 700,000-square-foot event at Citi Field aims to be a theme park as much as a lantern show. To enter, you walk in loops around row after row of metal barriers, which would make sense if Hello Panda had lines like Disney World’s, but on the Sunday I visited, it didn’t. Once inside, you’re greeted by a gargantuan figure that resembles RoboCop transformed into a rodent. Representing the coming Year of the Rat, it’s one of more than 120 illuminated exhibits that include safari animals, a fairy castle, a massive Christmas tree, a menorah and a tunnel-like panda with a body like a glittering Slinky.
Screeching dinosaurs — animatronic rather than lanterns — attract children, who can also play on luminescent doughnut swings and a giant checkerboard that lights up in response. Heated tents shelter a food court, a performance stage with a dance floor, a ball-pit playground and what may be the festival’s most intriguing feature: booths where artisans practice traditional folk arts like paper cutting and sugar painting. Through Jan. 26; 718-886-8158, hellopandafest.com.