History Of The Christmas Tree At Rockefeller Center

History Of The Christmas Tree At Rockefeller Center

Feature Photo: lazyllama / Shutterstock.com

Located at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the history-making Rockefeller Christmas tree has been put up as an annual tradition that would begin the first Wednesday after Thanksgiving Day and continue clean through the holiday season. In the quest to ignite New Yorkers and visitors with the spirit of Christmas, what’s usually a majestic spruce that can measure up to one hundred feet tall would light up the area in all its grand splendor.

When up, this tree is held in place by four guy wires that all stem from its midpoint. The base has a steel spike in place to make sure it stays up safely. Once erected, the tree is then surrounded by scaffolding so that the decorators can get to work. Since 2018, a nine-hundred-pound, seventy-spike star has been sitting on top of the tree in all its LED-lighting glory.

The First Tree

On December 24, 1931, the first Christmas tree to beautify the Rockefeller Center during the holiday season came from a group of Italian-American workers. The balsam fir stood twenty feet tall and was wrapped with cranberry strings, paper garland, and tin cans. Although there was no Christmas tree put in place in 1932, what started out as a simple celebration was about to become one of New York City’s most popular annual traditions.

Let Traditions Begin

Starting in 1933, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree became an annual tradition. In 1933, the tree used for that holiday season stood fifty feet high. Three years later, a skating rink was put in the plaza located under it. These two landmarks became a favorite hangout for New Yorkers and visitors. Some would come back, year after year, while others had the official lighting of the tree as part of their “must do” bucket list.

At the time, the workers involved would pool their money together to find the right tree for the occasion. The decorations that were made for it were strung together as garlands by their families. During an era that was still contending with the Great Depression, the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center served as a beacon of hope.

While America was caught up in the second world war, the decorations for the tree were kept simple yet patriotic. The flag colors of the United States were used as unlit globes and wooden stars. In 1942, there were three modestly sized trees that took the place of what would otherwise be one big large one. This was arranged so that each tree could represent one of the flag’s colors red, white, or blue.

In 1944, due to blackout regulations, the Christmas tree at the center was not lit. When World War II was over in 1945, there were six ultraviolet light projectors that illuminated the tree so that the fluorescent globes would glow in the dark.

History Of The Christmas Tree At Rockefeller Center

Photo: FashionStock.com / Shutterstock.com

Mid-Century Splendor

As each year progressed, the size of the tree used to spruce up Rockefeller Center became larger. In 1950, scaffolding was put in place so the decorators didn’t have to worry about safety issues. At the time, it took about twenty people to have the tree up and decorated in nine days. Going into the Christmas season in 1951, Rockefeller resident NBC televised the lighting of the Christmas tree by hosting a special known as The Kate Smith Hour.

In 1969, there were towering herald angels were added to the center’s Channel Gardens that towered in front of the tree near Fifth Avenue. Valerie Clarebout’s artistry featured twelve sculptures that each sported seventy-five metal-wired points.

Two years later, history was made when the sixty-five-foot tall tree from Vermont was recycled into bags of mulch that were used for the nature trails located in upper Manhattan. This became the start of Rockefeller’s Christmas trees finding a new purpose after the holiday season was over. As of 2007, it’s been used by Habitat for Humanity as construction material.

Reaching New Heights

In 1998, the tree chosen to decorate Rockefeller Center for Christmas had to be flown in from Richfield, Ohio by the world’s largest transport plane. The very next year saw the tallest tree to date, a one-hundred-foot spruce that came from Killingsworth, Connecticut.

Going into the holiday season of 2001, the September 11 attacks were still fresh in the minds of New Yorkers. The patriotism for the nation played a key role in decorating the tree with the country’s flag colors. This was also a humbling Christmas that ushered in a new era of appreciating family, friends, and neighbors like never before.

Over the stretch of time, the popularity of the Rockefeller Christmas Tree has become a highly publicized event loaded with live entertainment. From local talent to world-class celebrities, the lighting ceremonies have become a televised event that can be seen worldwide through NBC’s broadcasts. NBC is also the tenant that owns 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the location a new Christmas tree goes up each year.

Tree Search

From 1984 until 2009, the manager of the Gardens Division at the time scouted upstate New York to find that perfect tree. If one can’t be found in a state, then the search expands to surrounding states. In 1966, a white spruce tree came from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Year after year, David Murbach made this his personal quest until he died just two days before Christmas Day. In addition to the manager’s search for that perfect Christmas tree, there’s also a head gardener that makes sure it stays in pristine condition. That person also visits the nurseries, looking for unique backyard trees.

On the Rockefeller Center website, there is also the opportunity for candidates to submit their trees for consideration. Ideally, the tree team looks for something that fits the standard of a Christmas tree that can support the weight of the decorations.

When the tree goes up, this is done by a crane and a customized telescopic trailer so that it’s supported and transferred to its destination safely. Because the streets around the center are so narrow, the height of the tree can’t measure more than one hundred feet. Christmas Tree Brooklyn has been the company that’s assigned to decorate and deliver as it makes its way to Manhattan. Witnesses will usually observe the giant red bows as the collection of vehicles used to bring it to the center make this quite the spectacle.

Year after year, millions of people head over to Rockefeller Center just to see the grand Christmas tree. Since 1997, the lighting of it has been covered as a live broadcast of Christmas in Rockefeller Center by NBC. Under normal conditions, this is held the first Wednesday after celebrating Thanksgiving Day. Usually, the Mayor of New York City and the CEO of Rockefeller Center are accompanied by a collection of special guests as part of the ceremonial opening to light up the tree.

New Traditions

2007 marked the year LED lights replaced all the traditional lighting of the Christmas tree up to this point. This new efficiency in energy consumption required far fewer kilowatts of electricity usage per day.

In 2009, the lighting of the tree began to issue a five-second countdown. Two years later “Joy to the World” was a Christmas hymn the crowd would sing right after the countdown was over and the tree was lit up. All the way up to and through 2017, this was the final moment of the tree-lighting ceremony. Starting the Christmas season of 2018, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree lighting ceremony now has the official lighting to occur ten minutes before this annually programmed event is over.

Rocky Rockefeller

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic that swept the nation, the lighting of the Rockefeller Christmas Tree was slightly delayed to December 2, 2020. In front of a much smaller audience than usual, the ceremonial opening was once again televised as an event to trigger the holiday spirit. The lights stayed on until January 2, 2021. However, as depressive as this may seem, there was a little Christmas miracle that gained much attention.

The other notable event during the 2020 holiday season originally took place in Oneonta, New York. Nestled inside the branches of the tree that embarked on a three-day journey to New York City was an adult female northern saw-whet owl. Transport workers noticed her delivering the tree to Rockefeller Center on November 16.

Noticing she was dehydrated and hungry, they took her to Ravensbeard Wildlife Center where so she could receive the medical attention she needed. Named after the center, (Rocky) Rockefeller was nursed back to health before she was released from the wildlife center in Saugerties, New York. It was agreed the trip back to Oneonta would have been too traumatic for this tiny little owl who already endured so much.

Going into the Christmas season of 2021, some normalcy returned when the lighting ceremony took place on December 1. The lights stayed up until January 16, 2022. Here’s hoping this annual tradition keeps going until at least 2033 when that year will see this annual tradition reach the centennial mark. The Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center is one of New York City’s brightest beacons that deserves to keep shining year after year.

History Of The Christmas Tree At Rockefeller Center

Photo: TravnikovStudio / Shutterstock






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  1. Avatar Geraldine Gallagher November 10, 2022
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