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History Of The Rockefeller Christmas Tree

Christmastime in New York City is magical and the centerpiece of that magic is the breathtaking Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. You can feel the excitement in the air as hundreds of people crowd the sidewalk that overlooks the famous Rockefeller Plaza skating rink and the tree that is in the center. Flashes from cameras light up the night as people take photos of this magnificent tree with family and friends.

This year’s tree was lit up on Nov. 29 and will stay in place until Jan. 7. Ira Riklis looks at the history of the tree which is in its 85th anniversary of the lighting that actually has a humble beginning.

History Of The Tree

Amid the Great Depression on Christmas Eve in 1931, a group of construction workers decided to place a 20-foot tree in the area that is now Rockefeller Center. The men were in a celebratory mood as they were a group of very few that received a paycheck at that very trying time in our nation’s history.

The first official tree-lighting at Rockefeller Center took place two years later in 1933 and in 1942, Rockefeller Center offered up three trees instead of one, each sporting lights in red, white, or blue due to World War II. This was also the first year that it was decided that the trees would be donated each year at the end of the holiday season.

Although the tree-lighting ceremony has become a tradition over the past 85 years, the tree was not lit up in 1944 to stay in compliance with blackout regulations because of World War II. That year, no lights on outdoor Christmas trees in New York City were lit up. As you can imagine, however, when the war ended in 1945, the organizers of the Rockefeller Center not only lit the tree, but they adorned it with ultraviolet light projects to make all 700 fluorescent globes glow in the dark in celebration of the war’s end.

While many of you may take watching the tree-lighting on television for granted, it was actually not until 1951 that people could watch this spectacular event from their homes. That was the year the first tree-lighting was televised on NBC. it was a featured segment on The Kate Smith Show. From 1953 to 1955, children across the country sat mesmerized in front of their TV screens to watch the famous tree-lighting ceremony on the Howdy Doody show. Since then, the televised tree lighting ceremony has featured several famous people such as Lily Tomlin, Barbara Walters, and Liza Minelli. This year’s ceremony hosted by Savannah Guthrie, Al Roker, and Hoda Kotb from NBC’s the “Today” show with performances by Gwen Stefani, the Tenors, Brett Eldredge, Jennifer Nettles, Leslie Odom Jr., and Pentatonix.

While “going green” may seem like a more recent goal of many people, in 1971, the folks at Rockefeller Center made the decision to recycle the annual tree. They had the tree turned it into bushel bags of mulch and used the 30 bags on the nature trails in Upper Manhattan. While the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and several other organizations have benefited over the years from the annual Christmas trees, Habitat for Humanity has been the beneficiary for the past 11 years and use the lumber made from the tree to construct houses for families across the nation.

Fun Facts About The Rockefeller Center Tree

  • In 1941, organizers of the tree made the decision to place four reindeer in pens around the foot of the tree. They were later moved to the Bronx Zoo.
  • In an effort to make the tree look more “wintery”, the tree was painted silver in 1949.
  • Each tree is freshly cut then transported to New York City every year and most are from within the United States but in 1966, a white spruce was brought in from Canada, making it the first tree from outside the United States.
  • For the past several years, the type of tree used at Rockefeller Center has been a Norway Spruce and 1981 was the last time a different species of tree was used. It was a white spruce.
  • This year’s tree hails from the city of State College in Pennsylvania and weighs about 25,000 pounds. Roughly 80-years-old, it was cut down on Nov. 9 and placed at Rockefeller Center on Nov. 11. More than 50,000 lights were placed on this year’s tree and they were turned on during the tree-lighting ceremony on Nov. 29.
  • Since the tree will stand at Rockefeller Center until Jan. 7, maybe you and your family can make it to New York City to check it out along with the average number of 750,000 people that will visit it each day during this holiday season.
  • Time Magazine put out a great history of the tree article a few years ago that you can check out online and for more mind-blowing facts about the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.