Lighting Up The Air: The Secrets Of The Most Famous Christmas Tree In The US

On Christmas every year, people will flock to the Rockefeller Center to witness the lighting up of the largest and marvelous Christmas Tree in the United States.
December 23, 2021 | 15:07

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is a large Christmas tree placed annually in Rockefeller Center, in Midtown Manhattan, New York City, United States. The tree is put in place in mid-November and lit in a public ceremony on the Wednesday evening following Thanksgiving. Since 1997, the lighting has been broadcast live, to hundreds of millions, on NBC's Christmas in Rockefeller Center telecast. The tree lighting ceremony is aired at the end of every broadcast, following live entertainment and the tree is lit by the current Mayor of New York City, the CEO and president of Tishman Speyer, and special guests. An estimated 125 million people visit the attraction each year.

This year, the first lighting of the tree will be open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis. The in-person viewing will be restricted capacity and attendees must wear a mask.

The event will also be aired live on NBC and Peacock on Wednesday from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.; there will be an additional live hour of the special starting at 7 p.m. on NBC. Enjoy performers like Alessia Cara, Harry Connick Jr., Mickey Guyton, Norah Jones, Brad Paisley, Rob Thomas, Carrie Underwood, and of course, the Radio City Rockettes.

The tree is lit daily from 6 a.m. to 12 a.m. and will be lit for 24 hours on Christmas Day.

Photo: MARCA
Photo: MARCA

How big is the tree?

The 2021 Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is a 79ft tall Norway Spruce, 46 feet wide and weighs 12 tons.

The history of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, considered the “worldwide symbol of Christmas,” will be lit on Wednesday, marking the 89th tree lighting ceremony. After last year’s event was closed to spectators because of the pandemic, the tree lighting will once again welcome the public to kick off the holiday season. Ahead of the event, learn about the history of the iconic spruce, from its start as a modest Depression-era pick-me-up for Rockefeller Center construction workers to World War regulations to its current 900-pound Swarovski star.

The 1931 tree, courtesy of Tishman Speyer
The 1931 tree, courtesy of Tishman Speyer

On Christmas Eve, 1931, at the height of the Great Depression, workers at the Rockefeller Center construction site decided to pool their money together to buy a Christmas tree to lift their spirits. It was a 20-foot balsam fir that they decorated with handmade garland and strings of cranberries from their families. The men lined up at the tree to receive their paychecks.

Two years later in 1933, a Rockefeller Center publicist decided to make the tree an annual tradition, and they held the first official lighting ceremony with a 50-foot tree. In 1936, they put up two trees to mark the opening of the skating rink and also held an ice skating competition.

During World War II, 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 wartime black-out regulations. When the war ended in 1945, six ultraviolet light projectors were used to make it appear as though the tree’s 700 fluorescent globes were glowing in the dark.

The famous wire angels, by June Marie via Flickr cc
The famous wire angels, by June Marie via Flickr cc

In 1951, NBC televised the tree lighting for the first time with a special on The Kate Smith Show. Now that the entire nation was seeing the tree, the decorations became more elaborate and it was taking 20 workers on scaffolding nine days to fully decorate it.

Another famous holiday staple at Rockefeller Center is the triumphant collection of metal wire herald angels in the Channel Gardens. Sculptor Valerie Clarebout debuted the twelve figures in 1969.

Influenced by the environmental movement of the time, the tree was first recycled in 1971; it was turned into 30 three-bushel bags of mulch for the nature trails of upper Manhattan.

Following September 11, 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 featured 25,000 crystals and one million facets and is 9.5 feet wide.

In 2018, the star was replaced by another Swarovski model, this one designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. It’s made of three million Swarovski crystals radiating from 70 spikes, is nine feet four inches wide, and weighs in at 900 pounds.

Secrets of Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

1. A New Star was Designed by a Famous Architect in 2018

Photo: People
Photo: People

2018 marked the first new star on the Rockefeller Christmas tree since 2004, and the first redesign of the star since the inaugural Swarovski star. Architect Daniel Libeskind, who did the master plan for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center following the 9/11 attacks, created the star, which has three million Swarovski double cone crystals and weighs 900 pounds. The retired star weighed 550 pounds and had one million crystals. The diameter of the new star is roughly the same as the older one: 9 feet 4 inches. The new star has 70 spikes and emits 106,400 lumens of light.

2. How Many Miles of Lights are On the Tree?

Just to put the size of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree into perspective, it takes more than 50,000 lights to fully decorate it. The wire that the lights are strung on, plugged in end to end, would stretch five miles, about the distance from 110th Street to 14th Street along Broadway, or from 30 Rock to Battery Park. As another point of reference: the perimeter of Central Park is 6 miles.

3. What Happens to the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree After?

Photo: CNN
Photo: CNN

It’s always sad to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree being taken down, but its purpose goes beyond the holidays. The tree was first recycled in 1971, providing roughly 30 bags of mulch that was spread across nature trails around the city. Over the years, it has also provided resources for several projects: in 2005, for example, Habitat for Humanity used the wood to make door frames for houses for the needy, and two years later, the tree was used to build houses in New Orleans for those affected by Hurricane Katrina.

This year’s tree will also be donated (as it has been for fifteen consecutive years) to Habitat for Humanity. First, the wood needs to be milled and treated, before it is made into lumber for home building. The tree itself also inspired the book, The Carpenter’s Gift, written by David Rubel and illustrated by Jim LaMarche in collaboration with Habitat for Humanity. Fittingly so, about 15% of the 2012 tree was used to make the paper needed for the book’s production.

4. There Wasn’t Always Just One Rockefeller Christmas Tree at a Time

Imagine if there was not just one tree at Rockefeller Center, but many? That has happened before. In 1936, three years after the first tree lighting ceremony there were two trees of about 70 feet tall. It was also the first year the Rockfeller Center Outdoor Ice Skating Pond was open and a skating pageant took place. Then, in 1942, there were three trees placed to support the troops in World War II. One was decorated in red, one in white, and one in blue.

5. How the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is Located

This year’s tree was brought into New York City by flatbed truck and erected at Rockefeller Center on Nov. 14th. Photos: Diane Bondareff/AP Images for Tishman Speyer
This year’s tree was brought into New York City by flatbed truck and erected at Rockefeller Center on Nov. 14th. Photos: Diane Bondareff/AP Images for Tishman Speyer

Erik Pauze, the Head Gardener at Rockefeller Center, is in charge of scouting potential trees by visiting locations (ranging from nurseries to backyards) throughout the Tri-State area and beyond. David Murbach, the former Manager of the Gardens Division of Rockefeller Center, served this role previously for 26 years before his death in 2009. But the tree can also be nominated by individuals – you can actually submit a tree for consideration through the Rockefeller Center website. In fact, that’s how the 2015 tree was discovered. (It was submitted by a family from Gardiner, New York, who feared that their oversized tree would fall over onto the house).

What factors are considered when selecting the perfect tree? According to Pauzé and his team, the winner is chosen based on its heartiness and overall “Christmas tree shape,” as well as its ability to carry heavy ornaments.

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