The tree lighting ceremony’s beginnings were humble: In 1931, a construction crew put up a tree on the muddy site of what would later become Rockefeller Center. Two years later, the first formal ceremony was held in front of the RCA building, which we know today as the GE building. The tree had only 700 lights—a single star compared to today’s glowing galaxy of 45,000 multicolored lights adorning the tree.
While the Rockefeller Center tree has become an icon of the holiday season in America, the bulk of the tree-lighting ceremony really involves very little of the tree at all. I joined half a million people—New Yorkers and tourists, young and old—in Rockefeller Center (and on most every surrounding sidewalk) to hear some of America’s greatest talents perform. But the tree’s big moment arrives at the very close of the ceremony, and a large number of the spectators who have been standing and watching for two hours leave as soon as applause for the tree begins to die down. Hundreds of thousands of spectators come to the ceremony but stay to see the tree for only a moment in the wake of its lighting.
Events like the tree lighting ceremony (and basically everything in Midtown) are routinely derided for their tourist-centric frivolity. “Real New Yorkers” do not attend such an event, in our minds (save for hipsters, who do so ironically).
Not all attendees of the ceremony are tourists, though. Two older women from New York—Carol and Roz—came together, Carol for the first time and Roz after many years of absence. “I talked her into it,” Roz told me proudly. When asked why she chose to attend this year, Carol answered, “The entertainers are part of it, and seeing the tree itself.”
This winter’s tree is an 80-year-old Norway Spruce hailing from Flanders, N.J.. Weighing in at 10 tons, the tree is a donation from Joe Balku, a Hungarian immigrant who has lived in New Jersey since his arrival in 1956. He moved to America to flee the communism growing in Hungary, eventually settling in a Flanders home where this year’s Rockefeller Center tree had already stood for over 40 years.
Approximately 80 feet tall and 50 feet wide, the tree weathered Hurricane Sandy free of damage, thanks to the Rockefeller Center staff, who used over 10,000 feet of rope plus aircraft cable to protect this year’s carefully selected centerpiece. Meanwhile, ironically, the town of Flanders saw enormous trees falling as a result of the hurricane, damaging many homes, according to FEMA.
The decorations are nearly as imposing as the tree itself. The LED lights are strung across the five miles of wire needed to wrap around the entire tree, but the Swarovski crystal star on top might be even more illustrious. Made up of 25,000 crystals and its own energy-saving LED lights, the star is programmed with 1,024 unique channels to create breathtaking spectacles of light, which visitors to Rockefeller Center can enjoy for the entire holiday season.
Some of these visitors came from far away to see New York, not even knowing the ceremony would be happening during their visit. For Sam and Stephen, an English couple, it was a pleasant surprise. “It was coincidental,” Sam said. “We just booked a trip after Thanksgiving and afterward found out that the lights were getting switched on.” Stephen added, “We didn’t obviously realize how busy it was going to be. Maybe we should have come down here the day before.” The three of us agreed that it would take less time to build a career as a backup singer and perform on stage than to make our way to the front of the crowd.
Sometimes, standing for a few hours yields unexpected friendships. Between and during performances, a man and his wife standing behind me had been talking for nearly half an hour with another couple, who were there on a 50th birthday trip and coincidentally discovered they were from the same region of Canada. “We just met here!” one of the husbands said. “Canadians, we can always find each other. There’s not that many of us,” I heard him joke.
I had the good fortune of meeting Jackie and Elizabeth, two friendly teens from Norristown, Pa. For both girls, this year was their first time attending the ceremony. In fact, what brought them this year was winning a grand prize of a contest.
“We entered to make this music video for Cher Lloyd. She’s an upcoming singer.” I asked them what they did for the music video. Jackie said, “We went to the mall, and we filmed random people—” “And we just acted crazy!” Elizabeth said animatedly.
With Instagram and live video streams available, though, why make the trek downtown during finals season? There were many instances of hostility among the audience. Numerous teens found themselves pressed against parents and young children, older couples, and frustrated spectators in bulky winter coats and reindeer antler headbands. Roz said without hesitation that what had changed since her last visit was “the lines.” Indeed, the largeness and density of the crowd moved beyond a cozy community feel toward the stress and tension of a Black Friday mob.
But even cynics—admittedly, I am one sometimes—can open their eyes and enjoy the energy of the festivities. Yes, it’s crowded, cheesy, and super “tourist-y,” but there’s something to be said about a tradition that has lasted for so long in a city that’s always evolving. Beyond the kitsch of such a heavily hyped event, consider its original intention, conceived all of 80 years ago: to celebrate the joy of the holiday season. Even with all the work the season brings to students, with ice skating, shopping, and a magnificent tree to see, holiday-themed Rockefeller Center is a fun afternoon trip. All neck-craning, shoving, and shivering aside, the tree lighting is a tradition that reminds us of what makes New York beautiful amid all its grime and traffic: the feeling of being just a microscopic piece in a huge puzzle you can never know in its entirety and from which you can never withdraw yourself.
Rockefeller Plaza is located between West 49th and West 50th streets, and is open daily during the holiday season from 7 a.m. to midnight with periodic breaks.
Interested in reading about how Columbia's history and Rockefeller Center's intertwine? Read all about it here.