History Stories

Rockefeller Center, a 22-acre complex of commercial buildings in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, was developed in the 1930s by John D. Rockefeller Jr., whose father co-founded Standard Oil and became one of the world’s wealthiest men. Construction on the site began in 1930 and was completed in 1939. Workmen erected the first Christmas tree there in 1931; it stood about 20 feet tall.

The first official tree-lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center was organized two years later by a publicist for the still-under construction complex and held in 1933. The event was broadcast by radio, and that year’s tree stood 50 feet tall and glittered with 700 lights. Three years later, the lighting ceremony included a skating pageant at the newly opened Rockefeller Plaza outdoor ice rink (erected as a temporary feature designed to attract visitors to the plaza, the rink wound up becoming permanent). In 1944, with America in the midst of World War II, no trees were lit in New York City, in accordance with a wartime blackout.

The first televised Rockefeller lighting ceremony took place in 1951 on “The Kate Smith Show”; in the mid-1950s, the ceremony was featured on “The Howdy Doody Show.” Another milestone took place in 1966, when Canada donated a 64-foot white spruce in honor of its centennial; it was the first Rockefeller Christmas tree grown outside of the U.S. Another noteworthy occurrence came in 1971, when that year’s tree was turned into mulch and recycled after the holidays. In terms of size, the largest tree to date was the 100-foot-tall, 10-ton Norway Spruce that went up in 1999.

The Rockefeller Center tree has come a long way since 1931. This year’s tree is decorated with 45,000 energy-efficient, multi-colored LED lights and will be topped with a 9.5-foot wide, 550-pound star made of 25,000 Swarovski crystals. The tree will remain on display until January 7, 2014. Afterward, it will be milled into lumber to be used for Habitat for Humanity projects.

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