A Brief History of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

Over the past century, the Rockefeller tree has no doubt become one of the most cherished annual experiences for New York City Christmas lovers and tourists alike. The official Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree website describes itself as a "world-wide symbol of Christmas," a claim that's difficult to disagree with given the 125 million people that flock to see the tree each year. On December 2nd of this year, the 2015 tree will be unveiled as each bulb that wraps itself around the branches bursts with light for the first time. In anticipation for this annual celebration that attracts tens of thousands of viewers in person and hundreds of millions more by broadcast, we've decided to take a look back at the history and tradition of such a monumental Christmas icon. 

It's Christmas Eve, 1931. The Great Depression is in full swing, pinching at the wallets of New York City residents and people nationwide. However, the Christmas spirit entered the cold (literally) hearts of construction workers at Rockefeller Plaza and they all pitched in to buy a 20-foot balsam fir that they decorated with handmade ornaments from their families. The men then lined up in front of the tree to receive their paychecks (notice the box on the wood crate at the left side of the tree). And with that, the Rockefeller Tree was born!

Just two years later, in 1933, the Rockefeller Center decided to make the tree an annual tradition and hosted the first ever lighting ceremony. Fast forward to 1936 and visitors could also enjoy the newest addition that still remains today: the ice skating rink! 

During WWII, the tree's adornments switched to more of a patriotic theme. Hanging from it were no longer red, green, and gold ornaments, but red and blue globes and wooden stars painted white. Believe it or not, in 1942, no materials that were needed for war were allowed to be used on the tree! That same year, instead of one giant tree, they brought in three smaller trees that were each decorated with one of the flags three colors. Just three years later, once the war had finally ended, the "year of darkness" was forgotten and six UV light projectors were used to make the tree appear as though its 700 fluorescent globes were glowing! By the 1950s, it took up to twenty workers on ladders and scaffolding NINE whole days to decorate the tree entirely. 

In 1951, NBC broadcasted its first tree lighting on The Kate Smith Show, hosted by Kate Smith herself, shown above. Thousands of people were able to take part in such a historic event, and the Rockaefeller tree instantly became a staple of Christmas for not only New Yorkers, but for anyone that owned a television! From 1953 to 1955, the popular show Howdy Doody picked up the tree lighting ceremony. Since then, the tree lighting ceremony has featured numerous famous personalities such as Barbara Walters in 1972, Bob Hope in 1982, Lily Tomlin in 1985 and Liza Minelli in 1990! Beyonce even performed at the 2008 ceremony! 

In 1954, Saks Fifth Avenue mistakingly created massive traffic jams with its addition of a 32-foot display of aluminum angels hanging across the front of the building. Once Saks noticed that these angels were causing too much traffic throughout midtown, they were removed. In 1969, sculptor Valerie Clarebout reimagined the idea of the angels and unveiled twelve metal-wire angels throughout the Channel Gardens which can still be seen today! 

As the awareness of humanity's impact on nature and the green movement grew, the tree was first recycled in 1971. It was turned into 30 three-bushel bags of mulch for the nature trails of upper Manhattan.

Although the tree usually makes it's way to Rockefeller on a truck bed, in 1998 it received the "royal treatment" and was flown in from Richfield, OH, on the largest transport plane of that time! The following year saw the largest tree in history, a 100-foot tree from Killingworth, CT. 

After the September 11th attacks in 2001, the tree was once again decorated in the patriotic red, white, and blue. Three years later, the 2004 tree adorned a 850 pound Swarovski star at the top of its branches. The star was designed by German artist Michael Hammers and features 25 THOUSAND crystals and ONE MILLION facets. Although it may look small from the ground, don't let it fool you. This star is a massive 9.5 feet wide! In a continued effort to go green, LED lights were introduced to the tree in 2007. They use 1,200 fewer kilowatts of electricity daily. That's enough to power a 2,000 sq. ft. home for an entire month! Good thinking, Rockefeller! 

There you have it- the history of the Rockefeller tree! So next time you watch the annual broadcast of the lighting ceremony, or if you're lucky enough to see the tree in person, remember its roots. No pun intended. 

Still want more? Here are a few more interesting facts:

  • The tree is solar powered. 300 solar panels installed on the roof of One Rockefeller power this beauty. 
  • The tree's lights probably reach farther than you can run. Five miles of wire! That's the distance from 100th street to 14th street, or one mile less than the perimeter of central park! 
  • The tree remains lit for all 24 hours of Christmas day. 
  • Originally searched for nationwide by car, they now conduct aerial searches via helicopter each year to find the perfect tree. 
  • They've even floated trees down the Hudson River on a barge to get them in place!
  • The tree doesn't need to be watered. That's right, the cold temperatures keep it fresh - unlike the ones in our living rooms that wreak havoc on our floors. 

Author: Christian Green