Written By: Taylor Gilkison

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in Manhattan is the epitome of New York’s holiday season. With humble beginnings, the tree is considered an international symbol of Christmas and is ceremoniously lit every year on the Wednesday after Thanksgiving. Let’s dive deeper into the history behind this iconic holiday symbol and view photos of the famous tree from LIFE’s vast archive.

In December 1931, at the height of the Great Depression, construction workers building the Rockefeller Center complex pooled their money together to buy a 20-foot balsam fir Christmas tree to put up outside of the center. Two years later, in 1933, Rockefeller Center made the tree an annual tradition, and the first Christmas tree-lighting ceremony took place.

The size of the tree and its decorations grew more elaborate over the years; and, in 1951, the first televised tree lighting ceremony aired. Other traditions also began to take shape, including the now infamous collection of herald angels in the Channel Gardens and the larger-than-life Swarovski star that adorns the top of the tree. 

Between 70-100 feet, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is usually a Norway spruce, and it remains on display through the start of the New Year. After the holiday season, the famous tree is taken down, turned into lumber, donated to Habitat for Humanity, and is used to build homes for those in need. 

The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree will be lit for the 2022 holiday season during a special ceremony on Wednesday, November 30th. Watch the world’s most famous Christmas tree come to life during the Christmas at Rockefeller Center special airing on NBC. 

You can also find a historical anecdote about the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree from an original 1972 issue of LIFE magazine by clicking here.  

Rockefeller Center Christmas tree at night, 1952.

Alfred Eisenstaedt / LIFE Picture Collection

People walking near the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree during a snowstorm, New York City, New York, 1948.

Al Fenn / LIFE Picture Collection Al Fenn / LIFE Picture Collection

Christmas decorations at Rockefeller Plaza, New York City, New York, 1949.

Andreas Feininger / LIFE Picture Collection

Aerial wide-angle view of Rockefeller Center skating rink and Christmas tree, 1956.

Yale Joel / LIFE Picture Collection

Christmas tree being set-up in Rockefeller Center.

Bill Ray / LIFE Picture Collection

Christmas Tree being removed from Rockefeller Center.

Bill Ray / LIFE Picture Collection

Christmas tree being removed from Rockefeller Center.

Bill Ray / LIFE Picture Collection

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree turned into mulch.

Bill Ray / LIFE Picture Collection

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree turned into mulch.

Bill Ray / LIFE Picture Collection

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree turned into mulch.

Bill Ray / LIFE Picture Collection

Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, 1940.

Nina Leen / LIFE Picture Collection

People gathering near Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, New York City, New York, 1940.

Nina Leen / LIFE Picture Collection

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree at night, 1952.

Alfred Eisenstaedt / LIFE Picture Collection

Rockefeller Center Christmas tree at night.

LIFE Picture Collection

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