The last days of December… The best time to be in the city. Just as we pull out our winter woollens at the first indication of the chill, the city pulls out its adornments of magical enchantment. Lights twinkling from every building and every tree, music percolating into the street, smells of hot chocolate and coffee wafting in the air… all add a lightness to your steps.
Of course, there are more tourists in the city, more than at any time of the year; they are everywhere wandering around with maps in hand and eyes on top of the buildings. However, even they begin to look charming, with their mittens and scrubbed faces and dangly caps. Maybe an unforeseen impact of the holiday cheer going around! 🙂
For me, the one event that triggers the festive season is the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. This year, it took place on December 4, a Wednesday.
In an event broadcast live worldwide, Mayor Michael Bloomberg turned on the 45,000 multi-coloured LED lights on the 76-foot tall tree, topped with a 9 1/2-foot-wide Swarovski star. Artists who performed at the ceremony included Mary J. Blige, the Goo Goo Dolls, Jewel, Mariah Carey and Leona Lewis.
Toy soldiers at the Rockefeller Center
Looking at the spectacular pageantry associated with the event today, it will be hard to imagine the simple origins of the tradition.
The year was 1931. The nation was under the grip of the great depression, but New York suffered more than other parts of the country. Businesses had closed, manufacturing had ceased, and construction had come to a standstill. The stock market had lost 90% of its value; unemployment was above 25%.
Like a ray of light shining through the cloudbank, work on the Rockefeller Center started in the summer of 1931, bringing hope to the construction industry, burdened with a 64% unemployment rate.
By December 24, the plaza was cleared and excavation had started. Workers lining up at the site to collect their paycheck decorated a 20 foot evergreen rising out of the rocky ground, with garlands of cranberries, tinsel and tin cans. I’m sure none of them even dreamed that their action would set up such a long standing tradition!
Today, the search for the perfect evergreen to become the Rockefeller Center Tree starts in the beginning of the year. A minimum height of 65 feet, with a width of 35 feet at its broadest point, will qualify a tree to be in the running, but it takes a special something, be it a symmetrical shape or thick branches – something that contributes to that perfect look – to be the winner. The Rockefeller Center’s head gardens manager makes the final decision on the selection.
Once the tree has been identified, it is given special care and regular grooming. In November, preparations will start to get it ready for its travel to Manhattan. The branches are wrapped in twine and burlap, and are strapped tight to the trunk to make a compact shape. When ready, the tree is held up using a hydraulic crane and cut. Trees have travelled to the city on trucks, barges and once even on an airplane!
- There were two Christmas trees at the Rockefeller Center in the years 1936 and 1937; three trees in 1942.
- The 1966 tree, harvested 120 miles north of Ottawa, was donated by the Canadian government to celebrate their country’s centennial in 1967.
- In 1941, four live reindeer were penned near the Christmas Tree as an added attraction.
- On Dec 27 1979, a man climbed to the top of the tree to demand the freeing of Americans held hostage in Iran, and stayed there for an hour and half till he was coaxed down.
Generally the trees are taken down in the first week of January, most often either donated to Habitats for Humanity for use as lumber or chipped and turned into mulch.
Though the Rockefeller tree holds the pride of place in the city – the country, the world – J there are so many lovely ones I make a point of visiting every year. Here is the one at the Bryant Park with the ice skating rink.
The shop windows dress up so beautifully during the season that one tends to forget the crass commercialism for the moment and marvel at their beauty. Look at these from JC Penny…
“I’d rather be a lamppost in New York than mayor of Chicago.”
James Walker, Mayor of New York City from 1926 to 1932, nicknamed ‘The Late Mayor’ for his tendency to be always late and ‘The Night Mayor’ for obvious reasons. 🙂