Rockefeller Center in New York City is home to one of the world’s most recognizable symbols of Christmas — the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. After a televised lighting ceremony at the end of November, the tree remains on display until early January, during which time millions make it their mission to see it in person. So, how did this tradition get its start and how, exactly, is this special tree chosen?
1. Scratching a Seven-Year Itch
The 75-foot (23-meter) Norway spruce selected in 2017 to tower over Rockefeller Center’s plaza in all its holiday glory wasn’t chosen on a whim. In fact, it’s been a relocation seven years in the making. In 2010, Rockefeller Center’s head gardener, Erik Pauze, attended a football game at State College, Pennsylvania, where he spotted the massive specimen on campus and redirected its destiny. At least annually since then, Pauze returned to the college to monitor its growth, ensuring the 80-year-old tree would be exactly the right fit — all 12 tons (11 metric tons) of it.
2. A Decades-Long Tree-dition
The official tradition of lighting a huge Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center began in 1933 — and has continued every year since. However, this tree-dition actually got its start in 1931. During the Great Depression and during the building of Rockefeller Center, construction workers pooled their welcome paychecks to erect and decorate a 20-foot (6-meter) tree. The strings of cranberries and garlands of paper were added on Christmas Eve, and a decades-long idea was born.
3. Donating a Gift to Millions
More than 2.5 million people view the towering and intricately decorated Rockefeller Center Christmas tree every year, and among them are the families — awarded V.I.P. seating for the lighting ceremony — who donated the green superstar. Some tree owners are wooed by Rockefeller Center, while others volunteer their tree. Have a gorgeous Norway Spruce that could be a Rockefeller Center candidate? You can begin the tree-donation process online, but keep in mind, it may be a few years before your tree receives the final nod.
4. A Growing Event
What started with a 20-foot (6-meter) balsam fir in 1931 and grew to feature a 40-foot (12-meter) balsam fir at the first official tree lighting ceremony in 1933 has expanded into a massive holiday undertaking. By 1971, the conifer chosen for the Rockefeller Center celebration was 65 feet (20 meters) tall and by 1999, the tree was a 100-foot-tall (30-meters-tall) specimen. In recent years, the ideal tree is a Norway Spruce that is at least 75 feet (23 meters) tall and 45 feet (14 meters) in diameter, according to the Rockefeller Center website.
5. Home Sweet Holiday Tree
So what, exactly, does one do with a 75-foot (23-meters) Christmas tree once the holidays are over? Recycling the Rockefeller Center tree takes repurposing to a whole new level. The tree is milled into lumber, which is then donated to Habitat for Humanity and used to build a home. Each piece of wood is stamped “Rockefeller Center Tree,” along with the date of its 15 minutes of fame.