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Secrets of the City: Philly

Revealing all the untold stories of Philly. From all the best local spots to our love for a good parade, check out the stories that make the City of Brotherly Love unique!

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It’s Not the Holidays Without the Light Show

With the holiday season just around the corner, it’s time to get prepared. You’re probably wondering how to celebrate the season like a local on your next trip to Philly. Well, one of the first things most Philadelphians do to catch the holiday spirit is to go shopping … while watching a light show and listening to carols played on the largest organ in the country.

a store front at night File:Wanamaker_xmas_lights.jpg

You read that right. “The Light Show,” as it’s referred to by locals, is on the holiday to-do list every year, and it takes place in the middle of a department store!

The Macy’s Christmas Light Show, as it is officially known, features over 100,000 lights that dance and twinkle to the tune of classic Christmas carols and holiday songs while Julie Andrews narrates the story of the season.

The light show is free to watch, open to the public, and runs daily from November 25 to December 31, with multiple showtimes throughout the day.

And as heartwarming as the old-timey light show is, the star of this holiday spectacle is the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ. Located across from Philadelphia City Hall, in the historic John Wanamaker Building, the organ is housed in what is now a Macy’s department store. The Wanamaker Building is a National Historic Landmark and a must-see for visitors at any time of year. And its organ is “a must-hear.”

The organ is the largest fully-functioning pipe organ in the world, based on the number of playing pipes, the number of ranks, and its weight. It has 28,750 pipes, 463 stops, 1,714 traps and percussions, and five manuals. It weighs over 287,000 pounds and is spread out over seven stories of the store’s Grand Court.

Originally built for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, the organ was purchased by John Wanamaker for his new department store in Philadelphia. It took thirteen freight cars to move the organ to its new home and two years to install. The organ was first played on June 22, 1911, at the exact moment when King George V was crowned in England. The organ was also highlighted later that year when U.S. President William Howard Taft visited Philly for the store’s dedication.

The Wanamaker Organ is a concert organ, meaning that it is designed to play a wide range of music, from classical to popular. It is also known for its ability to mimic the sounds of other instruments, such as the violin, the flute, and the trumpet.

a close up of a church File:Wanamakers_Organ_at_Macys_Philadelphia.jpg

In addition to its musical significance, the organ is a work of art. Its case is decorated with carvings, sculptures, and stained glass.

The organ is featured at several special concerts throughout the year, but is best appreciated during “the light show,” a time-honored Philly tradition since 1956. The Macy’s Christmas Light Show is a must-see for anyone visiting Philadelphia during the holiday season. It is a truly magical experience that will create lasting memories for the whole family.
Here are some tips for enjoying the show:

  • Arrive early to get a good spot. The Grand Court gets crowded, especially on weekends.
  • Dress warmly. The Grand Court is not heated, so it can be chilly inside.
  • Bring a camera. There are many photo ops throughout the show.
  • Be patient. The show is popular, so there may be a wait to get in.

Don’t worry if you’re not in Philly during the holiday season. At any time of year, you can stop by to see the organ. You can also explore the rest of the beautiful John Wanamaker Building to do some shopping or simply admire the architecture. And if you time your visit just right, you will be serenaded, as the organ is played twice daily at 12 noon and 5:30 pm, Monday through Saturday.

Written by Jenna, a local expert guide for Philly Crawling. A recent escapee from the corporate world, she enjoys volunteering and spending time with family. She’s a pet lover, self-proclaimed beer geek, travel enthusiast, and aspiring foodie. Join Jenna for history and beer on Philly Crawling’s Liberty Pub Crawl.

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