The Story Behind the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

No matter where you live in the United States or even around the world, most people are familiar with one of the most well-known Christmas trees of all time – the one that is put up each year in New York’s Rockefeller Center. If you have never had the chance to see this Christmas tree in person, chances are you have seen it on television or in a holiday movie. It is an iconic symbol of Christmas in New York and the lighting of this tree ushers in the official start to the Christmas season. So how did the tradition of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree begin?  When did it begin? How is the tree selected each year? Read on to find out the answers to these questions and more!

A Brief History of Rockefeller Center

NEW YORK - December 3: Skaters having fun at Rockefeller Center Ice Skating at Christmas with the famous Christmas tree on December 3rd, 2010 in New York City, USA

Let’s begin with Rockefeller Center itself. John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s project to build Rockefeller Center employed over 40,000 people during some of the worst years of the Great Depression. 30 Rockefeller Plaza officially opened in May of 1933, and it immediately became a center of art and culture in New York City. It is estimated that over a million people walk through Rockefeller Center each year, a true testament to the iconic status this place holds in American history. But let’s get back to our main focus here – the famous Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

The Beginning of the Tradition

The first Rockefeller Center Christmas tree was actually erected before the official opening of the Plaza, back in 1931. The workers engaged in the building project were so overjoyed to be employed that they decided to put up a Christmas tree to celebrate. This first Rockefeller Center Christmas tree stood about 20 feet tall and was decorated with some berries, tin cans and garland. The workers actually received their paychecks underneath the Christmas tree that year. Let’s call this the first unofficial tree in Rockefeller Center.

In 1933, the first official Rockefeller Center Christmas tree was put up, as this was the first year the Plaza was officially open. The first official tree was a 50 foot tall pine tree decorated with about 700 lights. The first tree lighting ceremony was held that year. The tree lighting ceremony was then held each year after this, but as we all know things got bigger and grander as time progressed.

The Tradition – and the Tree – Grows

In 1951, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree grew in popularity as it was aired on television for the first time. Celebrities became involved in this televised tree lighting, with such names as Bob Hope, Barbara Walters and Bette Midler taking part in various years. From here, the tradition became a staple in homes across America and around the world, allowing everyone to partake in this fabulous tree lighting ceremony.

rockOriginally, the perfect tree was sought out by car, but now a team uses a helicopter to conduct an aerial search so they can truly find the perfect tree. The size and location of the tree determine how it is delivered to Rockefeller Center. In the past, trucks, barges and even transport planes have all been used to bring the tree to its destination.

In 2007, solar power was introduced to the tree, and it now runs off of 300 solar panels on top of Rockefeller Center. And once the holidays are over, the tree does not go to waste. It has been turned into mulch for trails in upper state New York and even used to build homes for Habitat for Humanity. And the stump is donated to the U.S. Equestrian team to become obstacles for horses to jump over.

During the holidays about ¾ of a million people will come to see the tree in person. It is an experience worth having, as one cannot truly appreciate the beauty and grandeur of this tree on the television screen.

Fun Facts

Here are some fun and perhaps unknown facts about the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree:

  • There are 45,000 LED lights on 5 miles of wire on the tree. This is just one mile short of the perimeter of Central Park!
  • The tree stays lit from 5:30pm to 11pm during the Christmas season, but on Christmas day itself it stays lit for 24 hours.
  • While the tree typically now stands around 65 feet tall, the tallest to date was back in 1999. This mother of all trees was 100 feet tall!
  • The tree does not need to be watered as the cold outdoor temperatures keep it happy.


Worth the Trip

If you have never seen the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree up close and in person, then start planning your trip now. Christmas in New York is something to cherish, and this tree is one of the main symbols of the New York Christmas experience. Don’t miss out on this absolutely amazing Christmas tradition!