The First Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
by john vilanova
Rockefeller Center after a snowstorm on December 26, 1947
Thousands of people will gather November 28 for the lighting of this year’s Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. Its commencement is as much a sign of kicking the holiday season into full gear as the appearance of Santa Claus at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. During the Depression, construction workers erected a 20-foot-tall tree in what was to become Rockefeller Center to bring cheer to New York, but the first official Christmas celebration at Rockefeller Center was led by Nelson Rockefeller in 1933, after the completion of the plaza. That first year’s revelry featured a 50-foot tree and a week of festivities, including a national broadcast of trumpeting and carolers over NBC radio.
Finding the right tree each year involves scouting the surrounding states for eligible evergreens with owners who are willing to part with them. Bringing the tree into busy Midtown is a tall order, requiring a custom-made trailer and crane to transport the roughly 10-ton cargo through tight turns to holiday central on Fifth Avenue. The largest tree on record—a 100-foot Norway spruce from Killingworth, CT—was selected for the millennium celebrations in 1999; since then most have hovered around the low 70s, with this year’s tree—Rock Center’s 80th—expected to follow suit. It will be lit by 30,000 LEDs and topped by a nine-and-a-half foot Swarovski star that has capped each tree since 2004.
Here, an earlier version stands over a city under siege by 99 million tons of snow. Dubbed the “blizzardopolis” of 1947, the day-after-Christmas storm dropped more than two feet of fresh powder on New York streets—the city’s largest snowfall on record for almost 60 years. It took crews of more than 30,000 people to clean up the aftermath. Yet, the tree’s lights still shined brightly, despite the weather, celebrating the ultimate white Christmas.
photography by harry harris/ap photo
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