The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Tradition

Rockefeller Christmas Tree Lighting

Cynics can argue back and forth about when the retail Christmas season begins in the United States. But there’s no disputing when or where the real Christmas season begins.

This year, Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree will be lit on Wednesday, December 2, with live performances to follow. It begins at the edge of a concrete canyon in Midtown Manhattan before a gathering of thousands and a TV audience of millions.  A celebrity or dignitary throws a switch, 30,000 multi-colored LED lights are set ablaze, and the mammoth Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree—what many call our National Christmas Tree—is a lit for another year.

The tree, usually Norway spruce, reigns over upper Rockefeller Plaza between 49th and 50th streets and between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas. It towers over the lower plaza, over the famous statue of Prometheus and the Rockefeller Center Ice Rink. Though the 70-story Rockefeller Center skyscraper centerpiece known as “30 Rock” officially became the Comcast Building in 2015 (as opposed to the GE Building and the RCA Building before that), corporate naming has yet to consume the grandest tradition of the plaza. It’s still the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree.

If you can make it to the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree lighting, get there early. The ceremony is free, but the public is admitted first-come, first-serve. If you can’t make it to the lighting, you still have plenty of time to take in this iconic sight. The tree is lit nightly through early January before being taken down on the annual Christian feast of the Epiphany.

The tree—put up every year on Veteran’s Day—is an awesome sight even before decorated and lit. You’ll be struck by its sheer size. Since a 100-footer set the record in 1999, the trees have averaged 79 feet in height.

Rockefeller Christmas TreeRockefeller Center trees—which almost always come from Northeastern forests—have to be supported by a crane while cut. Then they’re secured to a specially made trailer that crawls to New York City and through Manhattan streets. At the plaza the trees are secured to their base by a spike and stabilized by four guy-wires. Scaffolding has to be built so workers can string 5 miles worth of lights. And you think unpacking your artificial fir segments and unfolding the branches is a painstaking process?

Origin of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Tradition

Here’s how the tradition began and evolved. The first ceremonial tree lighting took place in 1933, but the first tree—just 20 feet tall—was erected on Christmas Eve 1931. It was put up on a construction site, in mud and debris, by men who truly had a reason to celebrate the holiday. They were building Rockefeller Center. It was the Great Depression. They had jobs.

That tree became an annual tradition that has continued without interruption. It has remained a constant even as the nation observing it changed. It withstood World War II, although during the war years a single tree was replaced by three—one each trimmed in red, white and blue—and in 1944 the trees weren’t illuminated because of a decreed blackout.

The first televised lighting took place in 1951 on a show hosted by Kate (“God Bless America”) Smith. Today the ceremonial lighting is the centerpiece of a televised all-star music and entertainment spectacular rich in old standbys like the Radio City Rockettes and hot in current A-listers like the Black-Eyed Peas.

Rockefeller Christmas TreeThe lighting and decorations have changed over the years, too. The Depression-era first tree was dressed up with scrap paper and tin cans. The trees of today twinkle with energy-efficient lighting and are topped off with a 550-pound “star” composed of 25,000 Swarovski crystals and almost 10 feet in diameter. Since LEDs replaced bulbs in 2007, Rockefeller Center trees conserve enough electricity every day to power an average 2,000-square-foot home for a month. And that isn’t the only example of environmental responsibility on the part of those in charge. For years, trees have been recycled after being taken down.

The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is New York City in all its holiday glory and one one of the true highlights of your fall or winter getaway to The Big Apple.
Photo credit: warrenjackson via photopin cc