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What is the history of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree?
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What is the history of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree?

Every Christmas millions of people visit New York, captivated by the amazing decoration of the shop windows in the Big Apple, the beautiful lights around Fifth Avenue and the streets of Manhattan and, of course, the iconic Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. More than 50,000 LED lights and a spectacular Swarovski star decorate this icon of the city each year, but… Do you know the history of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree?

So here’s Civitatis with a Christmas tale about the history of this emblem of New York. Happy Holidays!

The First Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

Man with winter coat checking out the Rockefeller center christmas lights.
Lights on the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

It was in 1931 the first Christmas tree was put up in the Rockefeller Center complex. The workers of the enclosure decided to raise funds to liven up the area with a fir tree that was decorated with garlands made by their very own families!

This first, modest tree was six metres tall, compared to the 20 meters the current specimens tend to measure! However, that small gesture from the workers sowed the seed of what would become one of the biggest tourist attractions around Christmas in New York. In fact, as early as 1933 The Rockefeller Center made the lighting of the tree a regular ceremony.

From that moment, the tradition was here to stay! A short time later, the famous ice skating rink would also be installed and in the 1950s the ceremony for the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree was first broadcast on television.

New York’s Most Famous Christmas Tree

Angel sculpture in front of the Rockefeller Center Christmas sculpture in New York.
Angel sculptures in front of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York

Not just any fir is worthy of becoming the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. It should be a tree more than than 50 years old and at least 20 meters high. The record was set in 1999 with a 30-meter beast!

Generally, the chosen tree is a Norwegian spruce brought from the states of New York, Connecticut or Pennsylvania.

Installation takes place in mid-to-late November so that everything is ready for the opening ceremony in December.

Facts About the Tree

Skaters on the Rockefeller Center Ice Rink
Rockefeller Center Ice Rink

The iconic Christmas tree stands each year in front of the General Electric skyscraper, the most famous building in the Rockefeller Center complex. But, as well as this famous emblem, the angel sculptures that decorate Channel Gardens are also famous, on the path leading to the tree, with these figures present ever since 1969!

It wasn’t until the 1950s that scaffolding began to be used to set up and decorate the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Until that moment, over 20 men and ten days of work were needed to set up the tree. But today modern techniques speed up this process enormously.

And the star that crowns the tree is made of Swarovski crystals. The first time this firm designed an ornament for this New York icon was in 2004.

A Charitable Christmas in New York

Vista del edificio Rockefeller Center desde la catedral de San Patricio, en Nueva York.
The Rockefeller Center complex as seen from St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Although it might not be too well known, the magic of the Rockefeller Center Christmas does not end after the holiday season. Since 2007, the Habitat for Humanity foundation gets the tree to carry out social works. What do they do with it? Once the festivities are over and the decoration is removed, the tree is donated for charitable purposes.

The organization takes wood from the tree to help build and rebuild homes for poor families. For this reason, Rockefeller Center selects trees that are in their last cycle of life, so that they can later be used for these charitable purposes.

Seeing the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Illumination

Matt Sallee, Kirstin Moldanado y Scott Hoying singing live for the 
Rockefeller Christmas tree lighting ceremony.
Musical performances at the Rockefeller Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

After learning about the origin of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, we arrived at the million dollar question. What about the lighting ceremony?! When is it?! What celebrities perform on this important evening?

The Christmas tree is lit each year on the first Wednesday after Thanksgiving. If you are in New York at Christmas time and you want to experience this show live, we recommend you arrive at least three or four hours before. You will not be at the very front but, given the size of the tree, you will surely be able to enjoy the show and watch the musical performances on the giant screens that are dotted around Rockefeller Square.

Artists of the stature of Mariah Carey, John Legend, Lea Michele and Diana Ross have performed in the past, with the line-up varying every year but disappointing. The show ends when the big red button to light up the tree is pressed. An unforgettable memory!

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