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Rockin’ Around the Rockefeller Tree: A History of NYC’s Most Famous Spruce


Nothing says Christmas in New York City like Rockefeller Plaza, its ice rink, and the towering spruce at its center, all lit up. So popular has the annual switching on of the lights become, it’s now a televised Christmas tradition that’s broadcast on NBC to an audience of hundreds of millions around the globe. So what were the beginnings of this seasonal phenomenon? And what has it come to represent all these years later?

The History

There’s been a tree in Midtown East’s Rockefeller Plaza every year since 1933. There was actually a tree in this spot in 1931, too, although its lighting was more of an informal (and altogether smaller) affair. Classic photographs from that year show Depression-era workers lined up to collect their Christmas paychecks by the tree they’d erected…and decorated with old cans and scrap paper, a far cry from the 45,000 LED lights that adorn the Rockefeller Center tree these days.

Almost every year, Rockefeller’s tree is a Norway spruce. There have, however, been a couple of exceptions. In 1957 the tree was a white spruce from Brighton, Vermont, and in 1963 it was a Bruce fir from Rockaway, New Jersey. New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut are often where the tree hails from, but again, that’s not always the case. Take 1998, when a 75-foot spruce was transported all the way from Ohio. It’s a tradition for different people to donate the tree to the city each year.

Usually, just one tree takes center stage in Rockefeller Plaza, but in 1942, three smaller ones were erected and bedecked in red, white, and blue in a nod to the Allied war effort. By 1944, the U.S. was in the thick of the war itself, and although a tree stood in Rockefeller Plaza, its lights went out at night to comply with blackout regulations.

Celebrity Status

Come the 1950s, the switching on of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree was already a beloved tradition, and its popularity was heightened with the rise of TV. The tree’s first televised lighting was in 1951 on The Kate Smith Show. From that moment, millions of people across America were transfixed by the annual event, and the tree’s celebrity status was cemented.

Plenty of celebrities have played a part in the lighting of the tree. Barbara Walters did it in 1972, Bob Hope had the honors in 1982, and Liza Minnelli was there in 1990. More recently, members from the cast of 30 Rock – a show set at the Rockefeller Center – have hosted.

The 2014 Lighting

Events in Rockefeller Plaza have gotten somewhat more elaborate than in the days of the Depression. More money – now millions of dollars – is involved in the extravaganza every year. This year’s Rockefeller spruce was illuminated on December 3rd and welcomed by tens of thousands of people thronging the sidewalks and craning to get a glimpse at what might be the U.S.’s most iconic temporary landmark. Celebrities such as Mariah Carey, Tony Bennett, and Lady Gaga were on hand to ensure the party sparkled as much as the tree itself.

When It’s All Over

Sadly, every Christmas must come to an end. So what becomes of the tree when the festive season is over? Since 1971, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree has been recycled. There’s no set fate for the tree, but in the past it’s become mulch for natural habitats, firewood for Boy Scouts, and even material for door frames. Who knows, maybe this time around it’ll end up as a coffee table in your luxury condo.

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