NYC Rock Tree Photo

The Roots of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

Christmas is a holiday fraught with endless forms of symbolism and, as we approach the coming holiday, New York City prepares once again to welcome the most iconic Christmas symbol again, tonight starting at 7:00 pm. The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree tradition is entering its 84th year this holiday season, continuing a rich history of bringing light and the spirit of Christmas to, not only New Yorkers but, people across the world as well.

New York Times Associated Press Rockefeller Christmas Tree 1931
(New York Times/Associated Press) Rockefeller Christmas Tree 1931

Unofficially begun in 1931, the tradition began when construction workers at the Rockefeller Center site got together to purchase a 20-foot balsam fir decorated with garlands handmade by their families. Two years later, the newly opened Rockefeller Center officially began the tradition, holding its first annual lighting ceremony. Only three years later a second tree was added to commemorate the opening of the Rockefeller Skating Rink and, with that, a true holiday tradition was born.

As America entered WWII, the tree lighting ceremony had to be altered each year to account for the changing state of the country. The décor of the tree featured more red white and blue in order to inspire patriotism, and, in 1942 when war materials were scarce, Rockefeller Center displayed three small trees rather than the traditional single large one. This year also became the first year that the tree was replanted after the holidays to help conserve resources. While the tree remained unlit in 1944 due to wartime regulations, the end of the war saw the end of the darkness for the famous tree, illuminating it once more with six new ultraviolet light projectors. By the 1950’s the tradition and tree had grown so large that it took twenty workers nine days to decorate it on scaffolding surrounding the tree. This fame only continued to grow with the first televised tree lighting, with NBC highlighting the event on The Kate Smith Show.

Since its debut as a 20-foot balsam, the Rockefeller Tree has grown in both fame and size, with 1998’s tree being flown in on the world’s largest transport plane from Richfield, Ohio. The year after that, the largest tree in the tradition’s history was displayed, a monstrous 100-foot spruce, from Killingworth, Connecticut. In order to make use of the tree beyond its lighting, the Rockefeller Tree has been recycled since 1971. Originally used to make mulch, the Rockefeller tree began serving a higher purpose in 2006 when it was given to Habitat for Humanity each year, where it’s milled, treated, and made into lumber to help build homes for those in need. Alongside going to help those in need, the tree remains energy conscious, with a switch to LED lights in 2007, saving over 1,200 kilowatts of electricity per day.

This year’s tree is a 94-foot beauty from central New York, donated by Angie and Graig Eicler, and will feature 50,000 rainbow LED lights alongside decorations and the now famous star, first placed on the tree in 2004. Whether you’re watching from home, or witnessing the spectacle firsthand, tune in tonight and experience a tradition known around the world as the start of the Christmas season.

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