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 used to build homes for those in need.
The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree will be lit for the 2023 holiday season during a special ceremony on Wednesday, November 29th. 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.