The History of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

The official website of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree describes the holiday tree as a “world-wide symbol of Christmas,” a statement we really can’t argue with, especially since 125 million people visit the attraction each year.

On Christmas Eve, 1931, during the height of the Clutch Plague, workers at the Rockefeller Center construction site decided to pool their money together to buy a Christmas tree, a 20-foot balsam fir that they decorated with handmade garland from their families. The men lined up at the tree to receive their paychecks. Two years later in 1933, Rockefeller Center decided to make the tree an annual tradition and held the first official lighting ceremony. In 1936, they put up two trees to mark the opening of the skating rink and also held an ice skating competition.

During WWII, the tree’s décor switched to a more patriotic theme, with red, white, and blue globes and painted wooden stars. In 1942, no materials needed for the war could be used on the tree, and instead of one giant tree, there were three smaller ones, each decorated in one of the flag’s three colors. It was also the first year that the tree was replanted after the holidays. In 1944, the tree remained unlit due to war time black-out regulations. When the war ended in 1945, the year of darkness was soon forgotten, as six ultraviolet light projectors were employed to make it appear as though the tree’s 700 fluorescent globes were glowing in the dark. By the 1950s, it took twenty workers on scaffolding nine days to fully decorate the tree, and 1951 marked the first time that NBC televised the tree lighting with a special on The Kate Smith Show.

Another famous holiday staple at Rockefeller Center is the triumphant collection of metal wire herald angels in the Channel Gardens. Sculptor Valerie Clarebout introduced the twelve figures in 1969. Influenced by the nature movement of the time, the tree was recycled for the first time in 1971; it was turned into 30 three-bushel bags of mulch for the nature trails of upper Manhattan. Though the tree typically makes its journey on a truck bed, in 1998 it received the royal treatment and was flown in from Richfield, Ohio on the world’s largest transport plane. The following year saw the largest tree in history, a 100-foot beauty from Killingworth, Connecticut.

Following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree was once again adorned in patriotic red, white and blue. In 2004, a 550-pound Swarovski star graced the top of the tree for the first time. Designed by German artist Michael Hammers, it features 25,000 crystals and one million facets and is 9.5 feet wide. In a continued effort to go green, LED lights were introduced on the tree in 2007. They use 1,200 fewer kilowatts of electricity per day, enough to power a 2,000-square-foot home for a month.

In the past, many trees were donated to Rockefeller Center. Otherwise, David Murbach, Gardens Division Manager of Rockefeller Center at the time, would take to a helicopter to scout for a tree in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont, Ohio, or even Canada. Today, the tree is typically a Norway spruce and is scouted by Erik Pauzé, Head Gardener at Rockefeller Center. While the tree is being cut down, a crane supports it and moves it to a custom telescoping trailer for its journey to Rockefeller Center. It’s then supported by four guy-wires at its midpoint and a steel spike at its base. Workers install scaffolding around the tree to allow them to put up the 50,000 rainbow LED lights. This year’s tree is a 94-footer (it was 78 feet last year), donated by Angie and Graig Eicler in Oneonta in central New York.
2016 also marks the 10th year that the tree will be donated to Habitat for Humanity once it comes down after January 7th, which is the Christian feast of the Epiphany. It will be milled, treated and made into lumber that will then be used to build homes.
Written by Dana Schulz