A Brief History of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree [What Christmas Means To Me]

Thursday, December 04, 2008

being away from new york city has no advantages for a city boy like myself. for me, it just promotes longing. growing up so close in jersey, it just seemed normal to care about what was going on in the big apple, even though i wasn't actually there. you get used to the way new york does things, and like riding a bike, they're ingrained in you forever. a few examples:

- the "tri-state area" will always be ny/nj/ct, no matter where i live.
- i will always refer to the following networks simply by their new york station numbers, cbs/2, nbc/4, fox/5, abc/7, no matter where i live. (i get caught up in this on a daily basis)
- i never say "the city" unless i'm talking about new york city.
- the only tree lighting at christmas, as far as i always knew, was in rockefeller center.
and so, as i watched the tree lighting last night, i felt as if i was a world away down here in virginia. virginians don't care much for the city's tree, (they cut the televised broadcast to an hour so they could show reruns of deal or no deal). i tivo'd it so that i can watch it over and over again and feel like i'm there. it was so nice being an $8 tunnel ride away... nyc during the holidays, is what christmas means to me.

As thousands of Americans nationwide witness the December 3 lighting of the gigantic tree in Rockefeller Center, TIME looks back at the tannebaum's origins:
Humble Beginnings - Today it's a multimillion-dollar extravaganza that attracts thousands of tourists every year, but the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree hasn't always been so glamorous. On Christmas Eve 1931, with the nation mired in the Great Depression, a group of construction workers erected a 20-foot tree on the muddy site of what would become one of the city's greatest architectural and commercial monuments. Despite their grim faces, the men had cause to celebrate. Unlike most of their colleagues, they were about to get paid. (Notice the wooden crate at the foot of the tree and the clerk behind it dispensing checks). Two years later, a Rockefeller Center publicist organized the first official tree-lighting ceremony.
War on Christmas? - In 1942, Rockefeller Center unveiled three small trees dedicated to the war effort — each trimmed in either red, white or blue. Though it wasn't the first time more than one Christmas tree stood there (two were erected in 1936 to celebrate the opening of the skating rink), it was the first time organizers announced that the trees would be replanted after the holiday season. In 1944, in keeping with wartime black-out regulations, the trees remained unlit, as did every other outdoor Christmas tree in the city that year. After the war's end in 1945, organizers more than made up for the previous years of darkness by using six ultraviolet light projectors to make all 700 fluorescent globes on that year's tree appear to glow in the dark.
Television Debut - In 1951, NBC televised its first tree lighting on The Kate Smith Show, hosted by the "first lady of radio" herself (above). From 1953 to 1955, children across America watched the ceremony on Howdy Doody. Since then, the tree lighting has featured a number of famous personalities — Barbara Walters in 1972, Bob Hope in 1982, Lily Tomlin in 1985 and Liza Minnelli in 1990. This year, Miss Piggy and Stephen Colbert will be in attendance.
Christmas Conservation - Spurred by the growing environmental movement, Rockefeller Center recycled its first Christmas tree in 1971, turning it into 30 three-bushel bags of mulch for the nature trails of upper Manhattan. Other organizations to later benefit from the leftover lumber include the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts and, most recently, Habitat for Humanity, which in 2005 used the wood to make door frames for homes in New York, Louisiana, India and Brazil.
Adornments & Ornaments - The tree's decorations have come a long way since 1931, when tin cans and scrap paper replaced garland and glass. In 1934, organizers festooned that year's evergreen with 1,200 colored lights and ornaments shaped like dogs, horses, giraffes, sailboats and stars. A public-address system also piped in holiday tunes, creating the effect of a "singing tree." The 1950s saw a white spray-painted tree, the return of garlands made of cranberries and popcorn (or at least, plastic balls that resembled them) and 10-foot-long aluminum icicles that turned treacherous in high winds. In 1954, Saks Fifth Avenue inadvertently created midtown traffic jams with its 32-foot-high display of aluminum angels floating along the building's facade (above). And for a few brief minutes in 1980, a human body adorned the tree before police could arrest the man who had unsuccessfully tried scaling it.
The Great Hunt - Nowadays, finding the perfect tree is a daunting task reserved for Rockefeller Center's garden manager. But this has not always been the case. In 1956, a polite (or perhaps proud) New Hampshire man presented a 65-foot White Spruce to the state's Governor, who in turn offered it to Rockefeller Center as a gift from New York's neighbor to the north. Ten years later, Canada delivered a 64-foot White spruce in honor of its 100th birthday — the first Rockefeller Christmas Tree raised out of the U.S. Today, a helicopter is used to scour New England for the perfect specimen. This year, the winning evergreen is a 72-foot-tall Norway spruce from New Jersey. Its owner, Bill Varanyak, dubbed it "the miracle tree," telling local reporters that his late mother always predicted it would one day stand at Rockefeller Center. Varanyak's parents had planted the tree in 1931, the very year the tradition began.
A Star Is Born - Last month, pop star Fergie unveiled the 550-pound Swarovski Star, created for the Rockefeller Christmas Tree by German artist Michael Hammers for the 100-year-old Austrian company. Standing 10 feet tall and composed of 25,000 crystals with a total of 1 million facets, it is the largest star to ever top the tree and the first to represent a corporate sponsor. Neither the crystal maker nor Rockefeller Center will disclose how much money changed hands, but some speculate Swarovski paid as much as $1.5 million for the rights to the tree's crown. Either way, it is a far cry from the 4-foot plastic star used during the 1950s and 60s or the fiberglass, gold-leaf star that adorned the tree during the late 1990s.
Let There Be Light - New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had the honor of flipping the switch during the 2007 tree-lighting ceremony, illuminating the more than 30,000 energy-saving LEDs that were part of NBC's latest attempt to go green. Compared to the tree's old incandescent bulbs, the new light-emitting diodes used 1,200 kilowatt hours less electricity per day, enough to power a 2,000-square-foot home for a month. Even so, the new lights did not win universal praise; some complained the tiny lights weren't as appealing as old-fashioned incandescents, while others decried NBC's glowing coverage, so to speak, of the eco-friendly move — noting that NBC's parent company, General Electric, manufactured the bulbs.

[time via thedailynightly]


cd,  12:04 PM  

so true... absolutely nothing can compare to the Christmas season in New York... Rockefeller Center... Fifth Avenue... St. Patrick's Cathedral... Times Square... I'll always treasure the years I worked in the city... and the memories of those times...

Michellesausages,  2:22 PM  

This made me feel warm and fuzzy inside. also a bit bitter about being SO SO far away...but warm and fuzzy nontheless. Thanks...

Blythe's Mom 7:02 AM  

I dont think I really have to say anything do i?

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