How the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Became Famous

The lighting of the Christmas Tree in Rockefeller Center in New York City kicks off the start of the official holiday season. This historic event dates back eighty years and draws crowds of enthusiastic spectators in person and on live television. The eighty-first Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting Ceremony was held on December 4, 2013 and provided the audience with lively entertainment and festive activities. The eighty-foot Norway spruce tree with its thirty thousand colorful lights stands in stark contrast to the first Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center in 1931.

The first Tree at Rockefeller Center, erected ...

First Tree at Rockefeller Center, erected by workers in 1931 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Origin in Great Depression & War Years

During the height of the Great Depression on a cold Christmas Eve in 1931, the first unofficial Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center put in place by several construction workers on the site of what was to later become this commercial site. The placement of this twenty-foot tree was the start of a lasting tradition. This scrawny balsam tree became a symbol of hope for many during these trying times.

It was 1933 when the first official tree made its debut in Rockefeller Center. The lighting ceremony was broadcast over the radio with thousands listening. The fifty-foot tree was covered with seven hundred brightly colored lights. Because of wartime blackout regulations in 1944, the Christmas tree and others like it throughout the entire city were not lit that year. It was not until the war ended in 1945 that the tree took on new life with hundreds of colored lights.

Televisions & Saving Resources

 In 1951, NBC televised the tree lighting ceremony on The Kate Smith Show. This historic event was hosted by Kate Smith and viewed on television sets across the country. 1971 demonstrated the country’s concern for the environment by recycling the official Christmas Tree by turning it into mulch to cover upper Manhattan’s nature trails. The oil embargo and subsequent energy crisis in 1973 demanded that fewer lights be burned and reduced the amount of time they were turned on. A growing concern for the environment in 2007 resulted in switching to more efficient LED lights on the tree. This change also involved using solar panels located on nearby buildings to power the lights.


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(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Finding the Right Tree


Finding the right tree to take its place of honor as the official Christmas Tree in Rockefeller Center requires careful planning and scouting. Once the perfect tree is located, it is cut while being supported by a crane and then moved into place at the Center on a custom telescoping trailer. Every effort is made to safely support it. A one hundred year-old, one hundred-foot tall Norway spruce holds the distinction of being the largest tree to grace Rockefeller Center. It made its grand appearance in 1999 and its record still stands today.


Seeing the Tree

Rockefeller Center is an extremely festive place during the holiday season with the official Christmas Tree providing a beautiful centerpiece with its brilliantly colored lights and decorations. Thousands of New York residents and tourists enjoy the spectacular holiday scenery at the Rockefeller Center every day during the Holidays. Tradition requires that the Christmas tree remain lit and available for viewing through January 6, which is the Christian feast of The Epiphany.




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