5 Dazzling Facts About the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

By: Laurie L. Dove  | 
Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
A view of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, with Swarovski Star atop, during the 87th Annual Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony at Rockefeller Center on Dec. 4, 2019, in New York City. Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

Rockefeller Center in New York City is home to one of the world's most recognizable symbols of Christmas — the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. After last year's lighting ceremony was closed to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year's tree lighting will again be open to holiday revelers. The massive tree will be lit Dec. 1, 2021, and will remain on display until early January 2022, when millions will make it their mission to see it in person. So, how did this tradition get its start and how, exactly, is this special tree chosen?

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1. A Tree Destined for Rockefeller Center

A 79-foot (24-meter) tall, 12-ton (10-metric ton) Norway Spruce gets the honor of towering over Rockefeller Center's plaza in all its holiday glory in 2021. This year's tree is approximately 85 years old and is from Elkton, Maryland — the first-ever tree donated from the state. Erik Pauze, the head gardener for Rockefeller Center, has been responsible for choosing the trees for 30 years.

"We found this year's tree back in March," he said in a statement. "From then until May, we checked in on it to see how it fared coming out of the winter ... then we started to tend to it, watering and feeding it, as well as thinking about the logistics of moving it to Rockefeller Center."

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2. A Decades-long Tree-dition

The official tradition of lighting a huge Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center began in 1933 — and has continued every year since. However, this tradition actually got its start in 1931. During the Great Depression and during the building of Rockefeller Center, construction workers pooled their welcome paychecks to erect and decorate a 20-foot (6-meter) tree. The strings of cranberries and garlands of paper were added on Christmas Eve, and a decades-long idea was born. This year's tree will be covered in more than 50,000 multicolored LED lights on approximately 5 miles (8 kilometers) of wire.

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3. Donating a Gift to Millions

More than 2.5 million people view the towering and intricately decorated Rockefeller Center Christmas tree every year, and among them are the families — awarded VIP seating for the lighting ceremony — who donated the green superstar. Some tree owners are wooed by Rockefeller Center, while others volunteer their tree. Have a gorgeous Norway Spruce that could be a Rockefeller Center candidate? You can begin the tree-donation process online, but keep in mind, it may be a few years before your tree receives the final nod.

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4. A Growing Event

Rockefeller Center, Christmas tree
Rockefeller Center in New York City is home to one of the world’s most recognizable symbols of Christmas — the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
Noam Gala/Getty Images

What started with a 20-foot (6-meter) balsam fir in 1931 and grew to feature a 40-foot (12-meter) balsam fir at the first official tree lighting ceremony in 1933 has expanded into a massive holiday undertaking. By 1971, the conifer chosen for the Rockefeller Center celebration was 65 feet (20 meters) tall and by 1999, the tree was a 100-foot-tall (30-meters-tall) specimen. In recent years, the ideal tree is a Norway Spruce that is at least 75 feet (23 meters) tall and 45 feet (14 meters) in diameter. "The Norway Spruce is great for the scale it can achieve, it can hold the lights on its branches, and it stands there nice and proud as the tree should," Pauze said.

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5. Home Sweet Holiday Tree

So what, exactly, does one do with a 79-foot (24-meter) Christmas tree once the holidays are over? Recycling the Rockefeller Center tree takes repurposing to a whole new level. The tree is milled into lumber, which is then donated to Habitat for Humanity and used to build a home. Each piece of wood is stamped "Rockefeller Center Tree," along with the date of its 15 minutes of fame.

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Originally Published: Nov 7, 2019

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