The origins of the Tannenbaum (German for “fir tree”) at 30 Rockefeller Plaza are as nostalgic and storied as any Christmas fable. The lighting of the Rockefeller Tree every year entertains thousands of tourists and locals alike.
The tradition began in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression. To bring up the spirits of their fellow New Yorkers, a group of construction workers put up a 20-foot tree on the muddy construction bank of what would soon become one of Manhattan's proudest architectural monuments.
By the 1940s, the Rockefeller tradition was staying strong for a nation in the grip of the second World War. In 1942, three smaller trees, each in red, white and blue, were dedicated to the war effort (This wasn't unheard of; in 1936, there were two trees to flank the new ice skating rink). In keeping with the wartime blackout, in 1944, the trees remained unlit, as did every outdoor Christmas tree. At the end of WWII, 1945's tree lit up with an abundance of 700 fluorescent bulbs and six ultraviolet light projectors to make up for the years of darkness.
The first televised tree lighting happened in 1951 on "The Kate Smith Show". From 1953 to 1955, the tree lighting delighted American children as a ceremony on "Howdy Doody". Barbara Walters did the honors in 1972, Bob Hope in 1982, Lily Tomlin in 1985, Liza Minnelli in 1990. Beloved New Yorker TV personalities Jane Krakowski ("30 Rock") and Zachary Levi ("Chuck") co-hosted the lighting of 2014's tree.
In 1971, the Rockefeller Center recycled its first tree, turning it into 30 three-bushel bags of mulch. This mulch was used to line the nature trails of upper Manhattan. Now, the leftover lumber is donated to the Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts of America and, most recently, Habitat for Humanity.
While tin cans and scrap paper adorned 1931's Rockefeller tree, by 1934, the evergreen shone brightly with 1,200 colored lights and ornaments. Holiday music was even piped in through PA speakers. Later, the 1950s saw a trend of white-flocked trees.
In 2013, singer Fergie unveiled the new 550-pound Swarovski crystal star created for the top of the Rockefeller tree. It's over 10 feet tall and contains over 25,000 crystals, making it the largest treetop star ever made.
As part of the city's effort to go green, Mayor Michael Bloomberg flipped the switch on 2007's tree, illuminating 30,000 energy-saving LED bulbs. These new bulbs use 1,200 kilowatt hours less electricity each day, enough to power one 2,000-square-foot home for a month.
The task of finding the perfect tree for the city is reserved for the Rockefeller Center's garden manager. Over the years, the Rockefeller Center has chosen trees from New Hampshire, Canada, New Jersey, and Connecticut.