Today the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is a worldwide symbol of opulence and the grand life of those who live in New York City, but this wasn’t how the tree began its story.
The first tree ever decorated at Rockefeller Center was improvised, put up by construction workers in December of 1931. They were grateful they had work when the country’s economic prospects were so bleak. The tree was decorated with paper garlands and some strings of cranberries, according to author Daniel Okrent who has written about the building of Rockefeller Center. It also twinkled with reflections from a few tin cans hung by the men.
The Associated Press captured the moment. On the left side of the photograph, we can see a fellow standing at a wooden crate; he is the paymaster handing out paychecks. The time is Christmas Eve.
Despite the Depression, the men were hired to build what was to become Rockefeller Center, a project that almost didn’t happen. In 1928, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. leased the land from Columbia University because the Metropolitan Opera expressed interest in a midtown location.
With the stock market crash in 1929, the Metropolitan Opera backed out of its commitment. Rockefeller, too, had suffered major losses on Black Tuesday, however, after some thought, he became steadfast in his resolve to proceed with building the “city within a city” he planned.
In July 1931 a construction team broke ground on what would be the largest private construction project in New York City. In doing so, Rockefeller not only provided jobs (some 75,000 over a nine-year period), but he also lifted morale of the entire city when people observed that a smart, wealthy businessman was expressing hope for the future.
The Tradition Begins
There was no Christmas tree in 1932 but in 1933 an official tree was selected and decorated to celebrate the first holiday season after the completion of the early buildings that became Rockefeller Center. The first official tree was forty feet tall, double the height of the original one put up by the workers, and it was lit with 700 electric lights. NBC Radio broadcast the lighting ceremony.