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How the Rockefeller Center Tree Became a New York City Icon

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On December 4, thousands will gather around the Rockefeller Center Tree to witness the twinkling lights blink on, while millions more will crowd around television sets worldwide to see the event.The tree lights up midtown Manhattan and serves as a glowing beacon of the Christmas spirit. But its Depression-era birth turns out to be far more humble.

On Christmas Eve in 1931, construction workers put up a tiny, 20-foot balsam fir on the meek and mucky site of what would soon become Rockefeller Center.

They strung it with cranberries, paper, and even tin cans. Christmas lights went up two weeks later at the behest of a Rockefeller Center publicist. Sadly, the tree disappeared the following year.

The first official tree emerged in 1933. Rising 50 feet tall into the gray winter sky, it stood in Rockefeller Plaza, where it would make its home for years after.

Believe it or not, Roc Center didn’t always play host to just one tree. In 1936, in honor of the newly-opened skating rink, officials planted twin trees. During 1942, as World War II raged on in Europe, Rockefeller Center erected three small Christmas trees dedicated to the war effort. But with the war came shortages and in 1944, because of blackouts, the tree stood tall but remained unlit.

The following year, the tree literally outshone its predecessor. With the war’s end came the end to blackouts and thus, organizers employed a whopping six ultraviolet light projectors. The result was a brilliant, glow-in-the-dark wonder.

1951 made the tree a television star. For the first time, the tree lighting debuted on The Kate Smith Show and viewers across America could take part in a piece of Christmas magic. Several celebrities have since hosted the lighting, including Barbara Walters in 1972, Bob Hope in 1982, Lily Tomlin in 1985, and Liza Minnelli in 1990. This year is sure to be entertaining, as Jane Krakowski of 30 Rock and Zachary Levi of Chuck co-host.

Recently, the tree has been going green. For the first time, in 1971, Rockefeller Center recycled the tree to create 30- three-bushel bags of mulch for Manhattan’s nature trails. Organizations like Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Habitat for Humanity have since benefited from used Christmas trees. In 2007, the lights became environmentally-friendly as well, as the city used 30,000 energy-saving LEDs for illumination.

The tree has seen several outfit changes since its inception. Graduating from the modest cranberry garlands and tin can ornaments in 1934, organizers decorated the tree with lights and a menagerie of ornaments in the shape of dogs, horses, and giraffes. The 1950s brought a fresh, white tree festooned with cranberries, popcorn, and aluminum icicles. In 1980 came an inadvertent human adornment, as a man tried to unsuccessfully scale it. He was arrested later.

This year, the tree hails from our neighbor, Connecticut . This 76-foot-tall Norway spruce is 75 years old and belongs to the Vargoshe family. 45,000 multi-colored LEDs will weave through its branches. On top, you’ll find a Swarovski crystal star measuring 9.5 feet in diameter.

Travel to New York this holiday season, and see the tree for yourself! Check out the Holiday Lights and Movie Sites tour for the Rockefeller Center tree and other great Holiday locations!

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