The Rockefeller Center Tree

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Christmas in New York is a wonderful time of year. The subways are a little less crowded, the shop windows are a little brighter, and the city just feels festive. My must-see Christmas spot in New York is the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. I go there every year on my birthday (December 6!) to see the lit-up tree and watch the ice skaters on the rink. To me, it isn’t Christmas season until I’ve gotten my picture taken in front of the tree (I have one from every year for the past 6 years)!

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
Samuel H. Gottscho, Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree at Night, 1934.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is as old as Rockefeller Center itself – it is truly an iconic and historic part of Christmas in New York. The tradition began during the Depression-era construction of Rockefeller Center. On Christmas Eve in 1931, construction workers put up the first tree in Rockefeller Center – an adorable 20-foot balsam fir (in contrast to this year’s 85-footer!). In his book on the history of Rockefeller Center, Great Fortune, Daniel Okrent recounts that the workers decorated this first tree with “strings of cranberries, garlands of paper, and even a few tin cans.” It wasn’t much, but it brightened the workers’ Christmas spirits…and it began a long Christmas tradition that continues today.

For whatever reason (the Great Depression was probably a big part of it, and Rockefeller Center was still under construction at the time), there wasn’t a Christmas tree in 1932. But 1933 marks the first year that an “official” tree was erected – and there has been a Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center every year since! The 1933 tree was 40 feet tall (double the size of the first!). In 1936, the ice rink was added to Rockefeller Center – which definitely enhanced the visibility of the tree. The tree-lighting was first broadcast on NBC in 1951, on the Kate Smith Show.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
New York Times Company, Christmas Tree, Radio City, 1948.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

There were times when the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree reflected current events in the country. During World War II (in 1942 and 1943), the tree was left unlit – and was decorated with red, white, and blue “non-essential” materials. During the 1973 oil crisis, the lights were only kept on for short periods of time.

In 2007, the tree was lit with energy-efficient LED lights – a new tradition which continues through today (this year’s tree will have 45, 000 LED lights on it!). This year’s 85-foot tree (with thousands of lights and a huge Swarovski star at the top!) is a far cry from the humble 1931 balsam fir. But there is something really special that the Christmas tree tradition is as old as Rockefeller Center itself. I can’t wait to visit the tree this year, and to add another photo to my collection!

With Christmas cheer,


  1. Sunday Sampling: Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First | says:

    […] brush up on your rockefeller christmas tree knowledge on this adorably informed history […]


Leave a Reply Cancel reply