Lighting the Tree

Martyrdom and merriment gave rise to Rockefeller Center’s Christmas tradition 

By Caitlin Shure 

Even New Yorkers need a savior. So as winter winds test their faith, Manhattanites (and more than a few tourists) annually flock to Rockefeller Center to behold a sacred martyr. The scene is at once gruesome and awesome. Its veins severed, a tree is propped up for public display, inspiring millions, while slowly rotting before their eyes. This juxtaposition of joy and decay is now so iconic that most oglers remain unfazed by the brutal execution. Oh no, Tannenbaum.


Rockefeller Center in 1931. With little pomp, and only light circumstance, a Christmas tradition began. (Courtesy of AP Images)

Since its inception, the Rockefeller tradition has been one of cheerfulness amidst sacrifice. On December 24, 1931, laborers building Rockefeller Center itself erected the first tree beside their worksite. Enduring low temperatures, a Great Depression, and the potential onset of seasonal affective disorder, these men may have looked to the tree for the spiritual oomph they needed to persist through the cold—though said oomph might have come from the long-awaited paychecks they received that Christmas Eve.

At a mere 20 feet, decorated with tin can ornaments, the first tree was hardly flashy. However, by 1935 the plant had “grown” to four times its original size and acquired the bright lights its stature warranted. Over the next few years, the Rockefeller tree would become a national holiday institution.

Like any good American icon, the Rockefeller tree put country first, scaling back festivities with the arrival of World War II.  Throughout wartime, lights and other military materials did not appear on the tree. Also during this era, perhaps fatigued by the death toll overseas, a number of New Yorkers complained about the wastefulness of annual tree slashings. So, from 1942 through 1945, the Rockefeller crew used live trees at the center. They accomplished this by digging up plants at their roots and replanting them after a few weeks of notoriety in the plaza.

Tree curators abandoned replanting efforts by the 1950s; they did not explain this change of policy, and, at the time, no one seemed to care. But the ‘60s and ‘70s brought increased environmental awareness and public critique of organizations insensitive to nature’s fragility. Though there exists no record of impassioned parties literally hugging a targeted Rockefeller tree, the spirit was there. With pressure from activists, a new tradition commenced: after the holidays, trees would be turned into mulch (or wood planks) and distributed to charities, such as Habitat for Humanity.

The 2012 Rockefeller Christmas tree used over 30,000 energy-efficient LED lights. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Courtesy of the Associated Press)

The 2012 Rockefeller Christmas tree used over 30,000 energy-efficient LED lights. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Courtesy of the Associated Press)

While “treecycling” made the Rockefeller ritual slightly less wasteful on the organic front, the issue of energy consumption remained as glaring as an eighty-foot, illuminated spruce tree. So, in 2007, LED lights replaced the tree’s traditional bulbs, decreasing energy use from 3,510 to 1,297 kilowatt hours per day. This change coincided with the installation of a solar roof at Rockefeller Center, which is thought to generate enough energy over the course of a year to more than compensate for that consumed by the tree’s six-week run.

In recent years, Rockefeller Center and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have made a distinct effort to appear environmentally friendly, even stating in a press release that the tree is “cut with a handheld saw…to reduce energy use.” Ardent environmentalists, of course, label such small gestures “green washing,” and continue to scorn the tradition.

Protesters hope that their efforts will save the earth; yet, they might hold a somewhat limited view of salvation. They assume that the gift of carbon storage is all that a tree can give; yet, even tiny tots understand that the tree’s power transcends its material presence. For, despite its impending expiration, the tree stands brightly, knowing that corporeal form exists merely to communicate an ethereal spirit. And if the Christmas Spirit can take on a Grinch, a Scrooge, and countless foggy Christmas Eves, a few environmentalists don’t stand a chance.

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