Yes, the tree is enormous, but you really notice the lights. Red. Yellow. Blue. Green. They blanket the colossal tree (typically a Norway spruce), forming a shimmering beacon that draws hundreds of thousands of gawkers to New York City’s Rockefeller Plaza. More than 30,000 lights brighten the holiday nights, each illuminated from dawn until almost midnight—except on Christmas Day, when they shine for 24 hours.
Every November, a giant tree is plucked from obscurity and hauled into midtown Manhattan, a tradition that began in 1931, unofficially and without any fanfare at all. On Christmas Eve that year, a group of men in hats, overalls, and work shirts waited patiently in a thick line as a 20-foot balsam fir stood behind them, decorated with makeshift paper garlands and tin cans. The Great Depression had been crushing the country for two years, and these construction workers were waiting anxiously for their pay. For some, it would be their first paycheck in weeks, or months. More than six in 10 New York City construction workers were jobless.
These lucky men were hired to build a soon-to-be landmark between 49th and 50th streets: a plaza made up of 15 buildings, bankrolled by and named for John D. Rockefeller Jr. Grateful for the opportunity, some workers acknowledged their good fortune with a modest splash of holiday spirit—the tree that stood behind them. Unwittingly, they launched a unique and momentous tradition.
Two years later, the first “official” Christmas tree arrived at the just-completed Rockefeller Center. Standing in front of the new RCA Building, it was more than twice as tall as the workers’ tree, and it glowed with 700 electric lights—not tin cans. Like most things that happened at the Center, it provided grist for the NBC broadcast mill: That inaugural lighting ceremony was heard around the country on NBC Radio. The celebration grew. In 1934, a 70-foot tree arrived and was decorated with 1,200 multicolored bulbs and four floodlights amplifying its presence. A sheet-metal star with 70 twinkling lights was added atop the tree the following year. As the tree increased in size and luminosity, the lights evolved into a true spectacle—and a marketing opportunity. “As a publicity effort, it’s unmatched,” says Daniel Okrent, author of Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. “It’s worth tens of millions of dollars[today]. It remains the primary way by which Americans and people around the world know Rockefeller Center.”
“Christmas Stars Shine In Midtown,” The New York Times headline proclaimed in 1950. Christmas at Rockefeller Center was all about the lights—and not only the ones on the tree. In fact, the tree sometimes took on a supporting role, as the article’s subheadline made clear: “Rockefeller Center Also Lights Huge Tree.”
That year a “ceiling of stars” was installed, featuring 550 blue-tinted bulbs arranged to simulate the stars one could see above Manhattan at 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve. The Hayden Planetarium was called in to confirm the precise location of each of the stars, which stretched above the promenade between Fifth Avenue and the stairs to the skating rink. It was quite the scene as “spectators bumped into one another as all eyes tried to find familiar stars and constellations,” the Times reported.
The lights on and around the tree have exhibited special colors and themes over the years. Just a few months after World War II ended in 1945, a 55-foot tree was decorated with more than 700 fluorescent plastic globes and flooded by huge ultraviolet lamps, known as black lights. No one knows how or why that psychedelic lighting theme occurred, but officials liked it enough to use it again the following year on an even taller tree.
The Center has traditionally illuminated sculpture displays, too, which line the Channel Gardens promenade between the British Empire Building and La Maison Francaise. In 1953, the path featured 300 red-and-white tapers topped with flickering electric bulbs. Twelve super-sized wire jack-in-the-boxes, each decorated with 112 bee lights, led up to the 1963 tree. Even displays that did not involve traditional light strings—nine-foot-tall candy canes in 1956, a grillwork structure with colored globes in 1960, giant ballroom-ready figures in 1967—have been lit or streamed with floodlights.
The tree’s lights at times symbolized major national events or made a specific national statement—most dramatically, perhaps, by being absent. Officials erected three unlit trees in 1942, a wartime Christmas, dressing them in red, white and blue globes and using only “nonessential materials.” The tree stayed dark the following year, too, as the war continued and the government called for fuel conservation. In the booming postwar 1950s, of course, the tree shone brighter than ever before—much like the rest of the United States.
When an oil embargo and energy crisis hit the country two decades later, the Times reported the 1973 tree would be “a little less bright.” Officials used about 25 percent fewer lights and turned them off earlier than they had traditionally.
More recently, the lights have reflected environmental concerns. In 2007, the Center switched to energy-efficient LED lights, powered by solar panels on nearby buildings—a change that annually saves as much power as an average U.S. family uses in a month.
The lights will surely change in the years to come, whether in color or size, material or shape. Still, one thing will remain steadfast: They will shine, heralding yet another holiday season. And a grateful nation.
Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.