By this point, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is a national tradition. After all, NBC has been live broadcasting the lighting ceremony to a nationwide audience since 1997. Furthermore, it has been putting serious effort into the matter, as shown by the musicians and other celebrities who make appearances before the big moment. However, WNBC was already broadcasting the lighting ceremony throughout New York before 1997, which makes sense because the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree goes back decades and decades.
How Public Christmas Trees Came to Be
The ultimate origins of Christmas trees aren’t 100 percent clear. Some people like to bring up a famous picture of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert gathered around a more-or-less modern Christmas tree with their children from The Illustrated London News in 1848, which proceeded to make its way to the United States through Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1850. That is understandable because it did a great deal to popularize the practice among the masses in both countries. Unfortunately, it didn’t introduce the practice to either country.
Indeed, Prince Albert wasn’t even the first British royal family member to put up a Christmas tree because Queen Charlotte started putting up Christmas branches in 1761 before putting up a full-sized Christmas tree in 1800. Both of these figures were German nobles back when Germany was still the Germanies. That is relevant because Christmas trees seemed to have sprung up in that region during the late medieval era and the early modern era. Afterward, Germans brought the practice with them to both the United Kingdom and the United States in subsequent centuries. Thanks to that, Christmas trees already existed in North America by the late 18th century and early 19th century.
The practice received a huge boost of popularity in the English-speaking world in the mid-19th century, not least because the United Kingdom had a keen awareness that its Christmas celebrations had undergone a severe pruning at the hands of industrial-era employers. Prince Albert was just one of the individuals who fueled the holiday’s resurgence. Another was Charles Dickens, who published A Christmas Carol in 1843 and more Christmas-themed books in subsequent years. From that period, the English-speaking world got everything from Christmas trees to Christmas cards and Christmas wreaths. Some of these things took direct inspiration from German predecessors. Others were invented in response to prevailing tastes.
For instance, public Christmas trees seemed to have been an American invention. Yes, Queen Charlotte’s Christmas tree in 1800 was meant for London elites because putting on a good performance has always been a core duty of royal families. However, it wasn’t truly public in the sense of being open to the masses. Instead, the first National Christmas Tree in 1923 seemed to have established the concept of public Christmas trees in the popular consciousness, thus paving the way for the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree and the rest of their fellows.
How the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Came to Be
Famously, John D. Rockefeller Jr. started building Rockefeller Center because the Great Depression ruined the initial plan to build a new home for the Metropolitan Opera fell through. The first Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree was unofficial. That is because Italian-American workers set up a 20-foot balsam fir in 1931, which was decorated using cranberries, paper garlands, and even some tin cans because of their limited resources. Still, their spirit can be seen in how they pooled their time and their money to put up a Christmas tree in the first place. Later, the first official Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree went up in the center of the plaza in 1933. At that point, much of the mass media entertainment complex remained incomplete. Even so, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree was meant as a shining beacon for both New Yorkers and people visiting from other regions.
Since then, the Rockefeller Center’s gardening team has continued putting up a Christmas tree, though the practice has continued changing to reflect the times. For instance, times of great patriotic feeling have seen it decked out in red, white, and blue. Furthermore, the Christmas tree has become bigger and bigger over time. Its decorations needed 20 individuals working on scaffolding over 9 days to put up by the late 1950s. Similarly, its increasing size has forced people to come up with new ways to transport it, ranging from floating it down the Hudson River on a barge to flying it in on an Antonov AN-124. Even measures to maximize the usefulness of the Christmas tree have been introduced. The wood was donated for the first time in 1963. That year, it went to a Boy Scout troop. Nowadays, the wood goes to Habitat for Humanity for building homes, which has been the case ever since 2007.
The Rockefeller Center’s gardening team gets the tree from either Upstate New York or the surrounding areas. As mentioned earlier, the first tree was a balsam fir. Since then, both balsam firs and white spruces have been used. However, it is the Norway spruce that is most consistently chosen to serve as the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. That is a species native to Northern, Central, and Eastern Europe but has long since spread to North America. The Norway spruce is unusual in that it is more tolerant of heat and humidity than most conifers, thus enabling it to thrive in a wider range of environments. There are now places in North America where it has integrated itself into the local ecosystem, though there are also places in North America where it is more invasive. In any case, the dominance of the Norway spruce can be seen in how the last non-Norway spruce tree was a white spruce back in 1981.
Of course, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree wouldn’t be as prominent as it is without the mass media. Rockefeller Center is rightfully one of New York City’s most-visited locations. Despite that, it still can’t match the reach of TV and other forms of mass media, particularly since the latter has become more powerful over time. Regardless, people like Christmas, which in turn, means that people like Christmas-themed content. Since Rockefeller Center has been home to NBC since the start, its Christmas tree was a natural source of content when TV started becoming popular. Listening to a lighting ceremony on the radio doesn’t offer much to interested individuals. The same isn’t true for watching a lighting ceremony on TV. As such, NBC started broadcasting the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree back in 1951, which was right around the time when Americans started embracing black-and-white TVs en masse. From there, it was a natural transition for NBC to start broadcasting the lighting to a national audience rather than just the state of New York, thus ensuring its transformation into a national tradition.
Haskell, David. The Encyclopedia of New York. New York: Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2020.
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