The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Ritual
Most people visiting New York City right now will brave the cold and the midtown Manhattan crowds to get a photo of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. The tree has transcended geography, language, and religious beliefs – in the past eight decades, it has become an internationally-recognized symbol of New York in the winter. How did this tree become an icon and tourism destination? Do many of its visitors know its rich history?
A brief history of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree:
1931 – construction workers are building Rockefeller Center, conceived originally as a site for the Metropolitan Opera House, financed by John D. Rockefeller. The impact of the recent stock market crash and the Depression were felt all over the city; it’s safe to assume that the energy of New York was far from celebratory that year on Christmas Eve.
Construction workers all contributed to purchase and erect a 20-foot tree in Rockefeller Plaza, right where they’d stand to collect paychecks. The decorations were whatever was available: cranberries, garlands made by their families, tin cans, etc. and the holiday spirit was suddenly alive at the Rockefeller construction site.
1933 – the ritual continued, which meant bigger crowds showing up to see a tree at Rockefeller Plaza and experience the holiday spirit in the big city. A 50-foot tree was brought in and lit for the public to see: the first official tree-lighting ceremony.
1936 – two trees are on display, to celebrate the opening of the recently-installed ice skating rink at Rockefeller Plaza. At the tree-lighting ceremony, an ice skating competition is held.
1940 – the tree’s ornamentation becomes patriotic-focused during the war. Decorations are globes and wooden stars, painted red, white, and blue.
1942 – three smaller trees are displayed (one 50 feet tall, the other two 30 feet tall), because no materials needed for war could be used for the Christmas tree. Each of the three trees is decorated in one of the American Flag’s three colors.
1944 – the tree remains dark, due to blackout laws in New York.
1945 – to celebrate the end of the war, six projectors are brought in and ultraviolet light illuminates the entire tree, giving the illusion that it’s glowing. The tree-lighting ceremony draws a massive crowd of celebratory spectators.
1951 – it takes a full construction crew more than a week to decorate the 82-foot-tall tree. This is the first time the tree-lighting its televised on NBC (on the Kate Smith show), drawing spectators from outside of New York City to experience its magic. It’s been televised every year since then!
1971 – the Christmas tree is mulched and recycled for the first time. Its wood is turned into mulch for nature trials in Northern Manhattan.
1998 – the 73-foot-tall is flown to New York from Richfield, Ohio on the world’s largest transport plane.
1999 – the tallest tree yet, at 100 feet tall. This is the maximum height of a tree that can safely be transported through Rockefeller Center’s narrow streets.
2001 – the tree is decorated red, white, and blue once again, following the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City.
2004 – the iconic 550-pound Swarovski crystal star makes its debut join the top of the tree. It features 25,000 crystals.
2007 – the tree uses energy-efficient LED light bulbs for the first time, cutting down on its electricity use.
2009 – the mulch from the recycled tree is donated to Habitat for Humanity for housing insulation, which has continued annually through today.
2018 – a new 9.5-foot star designed by Daniel Libeskind, featuring 3 million Swarovski crystals, debuts on the top of the tree.
2019 – more than half a million people pass the tree every day as they visit or work in one of the 14 buildings at Rockefeller Center. How many know that it has its roots in Depression-era construction workers who built the very structures we’re standing on?
The year’s Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is on display through mid-January 2020.