From its humble beginnings in 1931 to the glitz and glamor of today’s tree lightings, the towering Rockefeller Center evergreen has come to symbolize the holidays. Sure, it’s over the top to adorn a nearly 80-foot-tall tree with 45,000 lights—but this storied tradition has a surprisingly sweet side.
1. ROCKEFELLER CENTER’S VERY FIRST TREE WAS ACTUALLY A GRASSROOTS EFFORT.
Assume this monument to Christmas was cooked up by corporate execs in an effort to sell more toys? You could not be more wrong. The first-ever tree was erected in 1931 by a group of Depression-era construction workers who were hired to build the Rockefeller Center complex. The group decorated a 20-foot-tall spruce with paper garlands and tin cans, and lined up beside it on Christmas Eve to get their paychecks.
2. TWO YEARS LATER, THEY MADE IT OFFICIAL.
The construction of this opulent new tower, the biggest private building project in New York City at that time, became a beacon of hope in the early years of the Great Depression. So for Christmas 1933, the first holiday after Rock Center (then called the RCA Building) was completed, the company arranged an official tree-lighting ceremony. A 40-foot-tall tree was strung up with 700 electric lights, and the shebang was broadcast to the nation … on NBC Radio.
3. WITH A FEW EXCEPTIONS, THE TREE’S ALWAYS BEEN TRICKED OUT WITH MULTI-COLORED LIGHTS.
In 1942, instead of a single tree, three trees were erected in the plaza—one was trimmed in red, one in white, and one in blue to honor World War II troops. The trees were never lit, due to wartime blackout rules; ditto the following two years.
4. AS THE TRADITION GREW, THE JOB OF FINDING THE TREE BECAME A YEAR-ROUND PURSUIT.
, manager of the gardens division of Rockefeller Center, was in charge of finding the tree for nearly three decades before his death in 2010. He searched all year long, often renting helicopters to explore surrounding states and search for the perfect specimen. “You want personality: there’s density, a height and a width that we need,” he once said. “But some trees have a way of holding their branches. I don’t know what else to call it but character.”
5. THE TASK OF TRANSPORTING IT WILL BLOW YOUR MIND.
Over the years, the firs have come from Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, even Canada. (The tallest to date: A 100-foot tree from Killingworth, Connecticut, which went up in Rockefeller Center in 1999.) After it's chopped down, most trees are driven through the streets of Manhattan on a custom-built trailer; others are floated on a barge down the Hudson River. In 1998, when the 74-foot-tall Norway spruce needed a ride from Richfield, Ohio, it was actually flown in on an Antonov An-124 Ruslan, the world’s largest cargo plane.
6. ITS STAR IS MADE OF SHATTERPROOF GLASS—AND LOTS OF CRYSTALS.
It wouldn't be Christmas without a little bling: The tree-topper's rays are made of shatterproof glass—the same kind used in New York City's skyscrapers—and adorned with 25,000 Swarovski crystals. The star, which measures nearly 9.5 feet wide and weighs 550 pounds, first adorned the tree in 2004.
7. THE TREE GOT A MAJOR UPGRADE FOR ENERGY EFFICIENCY IN 2007.
Stringing a giant evergreen with lights—which are illuminated for more than a month—was never a great move for the environment. So eight years ago, the incandescent bulbs were replaced with LED lights, a move that saved 1200 kwH per day. To put that in perspective: It’s estimated that a family in a 2000-square-foot home would use 1200 kwH to power their household for an entire month. Solar panels, stationed on top a building in Rockefeller Center, power the LEDs. This year's tree will be strung with 45,000 lights on 5 miles of wire.
8. TREES CAN BE NOMINATED BY THEIR OWNERS.
While the search for the perfect tree is ongoing, individuals can also submit their own trees for consideration—and that's how the 2015 Rock Center Christmas tree was found.
Back in the spring, Albert Asendorf of Gardiner, New York, sent in photos of his 78-foot spruce, the centerpiece of the family’s front yard for more than 50 years. Asendorf and his partner, Nancy Puchalski, were worried that the oversized tree would fall onto the house. “It was almost a goner,” Asendorf told CBS. “We were just going to cut it up and get rid of it somehow, use it for firewood.” But that call would have been a tough one to make—the tree had stood in the yard since Asendorf’s father bought the place in 1957, and three generations of the family had played in its branches. So instead of cutting it down, they submitted the tree on a whim.
After the submission caught his eye, today’s head gardener, Erik Pauze, visited Asendorf’s tree and climbed nearly to the top to check things out. “It had a great shape, nice branches, and when I came up and looked for it, the sun was shining right on it so it made it even more glorious,” Pauze told CBS. It was officially chosen in October.
9. THE 2015 SPRUCE GOT THE VIP TREATMENT.
After Pauze made the official selection, the tree got some special attention. Pauze came back to see the tree—fertilizing it and watering it with 1800 gallons a visit—once a week. After the tree removal crew started tying up branches for transport, an armed police officer was stationed in the yard. Nearly 150 locals came to the Asendorf’s yard to watch the tree be cut down in early November.
10. IT'S SEEN BY MILLIONS.
, more than half a million people walk by the tree—stationed between West 48th and 51st streets and Fifth and Sixth Avenues—every day, starting from when it's erected in late November to when it comes down in early January. Thousands will gather in person to watch the official tree-lighting ceremony on December 2, and millions more will tune in from home.
11. WHEN THE HOLIDAY IS OVER, THE TREE KEEPS ON GIVING BACK.
Once the season wraps, Tishman Speyer (the company that operates Rockefeller Center) donates the tree to Habitat for Humanity. The tradition started in 2007, and since then, each tree has been milled and made into lumber to build homes across the country. Children’s book author David Rubel pays tribute to the process in The Carpenter’s Gift, a story about a Depression Era boy wishing for a home for his family. The parts of the tree that can't turned into lumber aren't wasted; they're turned into commemorative paper bookplates that go inside The Carpenter’s Gift.
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.