A Brief History of the Rockefeller Christmas Tree

By Ashlee Peck

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is a symbol of the holiday season, not only to those who live in New York City, but to many of us who live in other areas of the United States that have become captured by it’s glow through photographs, movies, and television shows throughout our lifetime. It’s expected that around 125 million New Yorkers and visitors will view the tree this year, which is usually a Norway spruce ranging 69 to 100 feet tall. In honor of this year’s tree, let’s explore a brief history of the famous Christmas tree.

1943 rockefeller christmas tree

Unlike the massive and bright tree that is used these days, the first Christmas tree that was erected at the Rockefeller site was quite modest in comparison. At around 20 feet tall, the tree was put up by depression-era construction workers who on Christmas Eve placed it on the muddy space that would soon become the Rockefeller Center. They then decorated the balsam fir with items such as strings of cranberries, paper garland, and tin cans. Unlike many others in the city, these workers had much cause for celebration as they put up the tree- they were actually getting ready to receive a paycheck.  When the first buildings of the center were opened in 1933, a Rockefeller Center publicist organized the first official tree-lighting ceremony, and as the tradition continued, they added the famous ice-skating rink in 1936.

In an effort to continue the holiday tradition while helping the war effort, the 1942 tree unveiling was done a bit differently, as the center unveiled three small trees decorated in patriotic decorations created from items that could be gotten during the war. This was also the first year that they announced that rather than disposing of the trees after Christmas that they would be replanted. As the war continued, the 1944 tree never saw its decorations lit up due to the city’s blackout regulations. However, this was more than made up for by the 1945 tree, which had six ultraviolet light projectors employed to make it appear as though the tree’s 700 fluorescent globes were glowing in the dark.

In 1951, the Rockefeller Christmas Tree had its first televised lighting, which aired on a special episode of “The Kate Smith Show.” It continued to grow in size throughout that decade, necessitating scaffolding and a small army of workers to decorate the famous tree.

The towering wire herald angels, created by artist Valerie Clarebout, were added to the Channel Gardens in front of the tree near Fifth Avenue in 1969 and are still used today.

In the years since, efforts have been made to be ever more “green” with the decoration and later use of the tree once the holiday season ends. The 1971 tree was the very first to be mulched and recycled, yielding 30 three-bushel bags of mulch for the nature trails of upper Manhattan. The 2007 tree  saw the decision to convert to energy-efficient lighting with LEDs which use 1,200 fewer kilowatts of electricity per day, enough to power a 2,000-square-foot home for a month. This was also the first year that the tree was milled into lumber and donated to Habitat for Humanity for use in house construction, a tradition that continues to this day.

This year’s tree will be lit from November 28 through 9pm on January 7. For more information on the famous symbol of the holidays, visit the Rockefeller Center’s website.