On December 24,1931 a construction crew was hard at work on a twenty-two-acre building site between 48th and 51st Streets in Midtown Manhattan. Two hundred twenty-eight buildings had been razed, forcing the relocation of several thousand tenants for what was originally meant to be the new site of the Metropolitan Opera.
The stock market crash of 1929 and the economic depression that followed made the planned move impossible. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who had leased the land from Columbia University for the Opera’s use quickly reformulated a plan to build up a mass media entertainment complex with Radio Corporation of America and its subsidiaries. Over the next several years it would develop into the Rockefeller Center with nineteen buildings and a sunken square annually featuring an iconic ice rink guarded by a humongous Christmas tree passed by half a million people per day.
But on Christmas Eve of 1931, the public wasn’t yet thrilled with the plans for the space and there was still a lot of zoning red tape in the way. The Italian-American crew, however, was hopeful. They had work, when so many did not, and the promise of much more on the horizon. And it was the night before Christmas. What they needed was a great big tree.
The workers and their families chipped in to purchase a twenty-foot-tall balsam fir that they erected in the middle of the muddy construction site and decorated with cranberries, paper, and tin cans. I’m sure the tree wouldn’t have looked all that impressive alongside the fifty-footer that two years later officially became what the Rockefeller Center’s website refers to as “a holiday beacon for New Yorkers and visitors alike.”
Even fifty feet seems tiny when compared to the trees now used, which typically range between seventy-five and eighty-five feet tall, and once even as much as one hundred feet. The decorating of this beast of a tree takes dozens of workers more than a week to complete before the nationally broadcast lighting ceremony that takes place every year after Thanksgiving.
Still, I think twenty feet is pretty impressive, if not even a little bit excessive. Many years ago, when my family and I lived in a different house in a different state, our living room had a high, vaulted ceiling. My husband, who pretty much loves all things Christmas, decided we needed a bigger Christmas tree to better fit our space than the measly seven-and-a-half-footer we’d been getting by with.
I took some convincing, but he found a good deal on an artificial (due to family allergies and general disdain of sap and spiders) tree that was twelve feet tall and since he was willing to move the ladder around to decorate the top five feet, I agreed to the purchase.
That first year the tree was a little sparsely decorated with our seven-and-a half-feet worth of ornaments and I can see why the construction workers at Rockefeller Center would have resorted to using tin cans to fill the space. The tree was gorgeous, and it made my husband very happy. I did, however, feel a little bit like I was living in a shopping mall. Or maybe at Rockefeller Center.
It didn’t completely break my heart when the next house came with lower ceilings and we had to trade down. Over the years we’ve managed to reach a compromise and now put up a nine-footer, which is still awfully pretty, but doesn’t require nearly as much ladder manipulation to decorate.
I do see him staring at it sometimes, though, probably thinking he could fit another several inches beneath the ceiling. Maybe someday we will. It is, after all, a holiday beacon for us and for visitors alike.