A Brief History of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
The first Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center was a spindly balsam erected on the construction site in December, 1931. Two years later, the first “official” tree- a handsome specimen standing 50 feet tall- was unveiled in its famous spot in Rockefeller Plaza, and the lighting ceremony was broadcast nationwide over NBC Radio. The largest of Rockefeller Center’s trees was the 100-year-old, 100-foot-tall, ten-ton Norway Spruce erected in 1999.
The 75th tree marked the start of a new eco-friendly tradition in 2007. It was cut down with a two-person handsaw, and illuminated by 30,000 LEDs that used a fraction of the energy of normal bulbs. When the time came to take the tree down, Rockefeller Center partnered with Habitat for Humanity, which milled and treated it for future use as “green” lumber.
View the History of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree:
Today it’s a multimillion-dollar extravaganza that attracts thousands of tourists every year, but the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree hasn’t always been so glamorous. On Christmas Eve 1931, with the nation mired in the Great Depression, a group of construction workers erected a 20-ft. tree on the muddy site of what would become one of the city’s greatest architectural and commercial monuments. Despite their grim faces, the men had cause to celebrate. Unlike most of their colleagues, they were about to get paid. (Notice the wooden crate at the foot of the tree and the clerk behind it dispensing checks.) Two years later, a Rockefeller Center publicist organized the first official tree-lighting ceremony.
War on Christmas?
In 1942, Rockefeller Center unveiled three small trees dedicated to the war effort — each trimmed in either red, white or blue. Though it wasn’t the first time more than one Christmas tree stood there (two were erected in 1936 to celebrate the opening of the skating rink), it was the first time organizers announced that the trees would be replanted after the holiday season. In 1944, in keeping with wartime blackout regulations, the trees remained unlit, as did every other outdoor Christmas tree in the city that year. After the war’s end in 1945, organizers more than made up for the previous years of darkness by using six ultraviolet light projectors to make all 700 fluorescent globes on that year’s tree appear to glow in the dark.
In 1951, NBC televised its first tree lighting on The Kate Smith Show, hosted by the “first lady of radio” herself, above. From 1953 to 1955, children across America watched the ceremony on Howdy Doody. Since then, the tree lighting has featured a number of famous personalities — Barbara Walters in 1972, Bob Hope in 1982, Lily Tomlin in 1985 and Liza Minnelli in 1990. This year Jane Krakowski and Zachary Levi, stars of the NBC shows 30 Rock and Chuck, respectively, will co-host.
Spurred by the growing environmental movement, Rockefeller Center recycled its first Christmas tree in 1971, turning it into 30 three-bushel bags of mulch for the nature trails of upper Manhattan. Other organizations to later benefit from the leftover lumber include the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts and, most recently, Habitat for Humanity, which in 2005 used the wood to make door frames for homes in New York, Louisiana, India and Brazil.
Adornments and Ornaments
The tree’s decorations have come a long way since 1931, when tin cans and scrap paper replaced garlands and glass. In 1934, organizers festooned that year’s evergreen with 1,200 colored lights and ornaments shaped like dogs, horses, giraffes, sailboats and stars. A public-address system also piped in holiday tunes, creating the effect of a singing tree. The 1950s saw a white spray-painted tree, the return of garlands made of cranberries and popcorn (or, at least, plastic balls that resembled the festive foodstuffs) and 10-ft.-long aluminum icicles that turned treacherous in high winds. In 1954, Saks Fifth Avenue inadvertently created midtown traffic jams with its 32-ft.-high display of aluminum angels floating along the building’s facade, above. And for a few brief minutes in 1980, a human body adorned the tree before police could arrest the man who had unsuccessfully tried scaling it.
A Star Is Born
Last year, pop star Fergie unveiled the 550-lb. Swarovski Star, created for the Rockefeller Christmas tree by German artist Michael Hammers for the 100-year-old Austrian company. Standing 10 ft. tall and composed of 25,000 crystals with a total of 1 million facets, it was the largest star to ever top the tree and the first to represent a corporate sponsor. Neither the crystalmaker nor Rockefeller Center would disclose how much money changed hands, but some speculate Swarovski paid as much as $1.5 million for the rights to the tree’s crown. Either way, it is a far cry from the 4-ft. plastic star used during the 1950s and ’60s or the fiberglass and gold-leaf star that adorned the tree during the late 1990s.
Let There Be Light
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had the honor of flipping the switch during the 2007 tree-lighting ceremony, illuminating the more than 30,000 energy-saving LEDs that were part of NBC’s latest attempt to go green. Compared to the tree’s old incandescent bulbs, the new light-emitting diodes used 1,200 kilowatt hours less electricity per day, enough to power a 2,000-sq.-ft. home for a month. Even so, the new lights did not win universal praise; some complained the tiny lights weren’t as appealing as old-fashioned incandescents, while others decried NBC’s glowing coverage, so to speak, of the eco-friendly move — noting that NBC’s parent company, General Electric, manufactured the bulbs.
The Great Hunt
Nowadays, finding the perfect tree is a daunting task reserved for Rockefeller Center’s garden manager. But this has not always been the case. In 1956, a polite (or perhaps proud) New Hampshire man presented a 65-ft. white spruce to the state’s governor, who in turn offered it to Rockefeller Center as a gift from New York’s neighbor to the north. Ten years later, Canada delivered a 64-ft. white spruce in honor of its 100th birthday — the first Rockefeller Christmas tree raised out of the U.S. Today, a helicopter is used to scour New England for the perfect specimen. In 2008, the winning evergreen was a 72-ft. Norway spruce from New Jersey. Its owner, Bill Varanyak, dubbed it “the miracle tree,” telling local reporters that his late mother always predicted it would one day stand at Rockefeller Center. Varanyak’s parents had planted the tree in 1931, the very year the tradition began. This year, the tree hails from the Connecticut yard of a fifth-grade teacher who had personally called NBC’s garden manager to offer her tree for the job.
- Photos: 80th annual Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony (photos.denverpost.com)
- Norway Spruce From NJ This Year’s Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree (newyork.cbslocal.com)
- Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree (carolynquinn.wordpress.com)
- Rockefeller Center Christmas tree survived Sandy (miamiherald.com)
- What Would the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center Be Worth? (businessweek.com)
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