Christmas Trees (real or phony) are everywhere. Most people have one (again either real or phony) in their homes or apartments. But when New Yorkers speak of the Tree, it is usually evident which one they mean.
The first Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree was erected in 1931. The above photo shows that first tree, erected by construction workers in 1931 shortly after the site was cleared. Fittingly, the photo shows the workers lining up for their pay beside the tree, which was adorned with garlands made by workers’ families – a Christmas memory from one dispiriting time for this dispiriting time.
The first formal Rockefeller Center Tree-lighting took place two years later. In 1951, for the first time, NBC televised the tree lighting with a special on The Kate Smith Hour, an annual event that has since then evolved into the elaborate and festive (if not necessarily all that Christmasy) musical extravaganza, featuring live performances celebrity appearances, that will take place this evening, still covered by NBC.
Meanwhile, the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan has long been a major New York tourist attraction, for there really is no other time of year when New York puts forth its very best face to the world. To us native New Yorkers, however, the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center (« the Tree ») it is just one of those especially great and glorious things that make the season Christmas what it is in this city.
The Tree to be formally and officially lit late this evening is obviously quite an elaborate advance on the 1931 original, let alone the much more modest medieval model associated with Martin Luther and the somewhat similarly simple trees that used to light up our Bronx apartment when I was growing up. But, when it comes to Christmas, can anything ever be too much?
When I was growing up, the subway ride to midtown to see the Tree was one of several musts in the annual Christmas observance, one of at least two Christmastime trips to Manhattan. That particular itinerary routinely also included the Radio City Christmas Show (which then cost all of $1 and included a movie as well) and a visit to Saint Patrick’s, the cathedral.
As Christmas customs go, the Christmas Tree is Northern European in origin and obviously predates Christmas itself. But it is now universally observed, even in places where Christmas itself has relatively little religious salience. As one ages and the memories of holidays past recede further into the background, the presence of a Christmas Tree under one’s roof remains the touch more meaningful.
When I became a pastor in Tennessee in 2010, one of my few early innovations was to set up a Christmas Tree outside the church, which we blessed and lit annually on December 8 (our parish’s patronal feast). On such occasions the Church prays: Lord God, let your blessing come upon us as we illumine this tree. May the light and cheer it gives be a sing of the joy that fills our hearts. May all who delight in this tree come to the knowledge and joy of salvation.
May that be our prayer for all again this much needed Christmas season!