A Photographic History of the Rockefeller Christmas Tree

Since the first tree in 1931, much has changed — but not the tradition itself

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Construction workers purchased and decorated a 20-ft. tree in the Rockefeller Center construction site on Christmas Eve 1931, as the Great Depression wore on. According to Thrillist, they added just a few decorations: cranberries, paper garland and tin cans.

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Rockefeller Center Inc. 20 Rockefeller Plaza. Christmas tree at night, 1.

The year 1933 marked the first official tree lighting ceremony, organized by a publicist for Rockefeller Center, according to TIME. The years that followed brought slightly bigger — and much brighter — trees.

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In 1936, two trees were erected to celebrate the opening of the now-famous Rockefeller Center ice skating rink.

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Rockefeller Plaza Christmas Tree
Frederic Lewis/Getty

Rockefeller Center played a big role in the TV boom of the 1950s, translating to even more opulent trees. The tree made its first TV appearance on The Howdy Doody Show, and decorations went from cranberries and popcorn to red garland, white plastic globes, icicle lights and wiry white angel trumpeters.

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Rockefeller Christmas Tree
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According to Rockefeller Center's website, in the 1950s, "workers began using scaffolding to aid in decorating the trees. Before the decade was over, the process called for 20 men and a period of nine days."

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Rockefeller Center, New York, USA

Trees — which are generally donated, not purchased, and scouted by the Rockefeller Center gardening team — continued to get bigger and better throughout the 1960s. And in 1963, another historic first: the tree's wood was recycled, donated to a Boy Scout troop.

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Rockefeller Christmas

As the evergreens grew larger, the means of getting them from their "homes" to New York City grew more creative — like the time a tree was floated down the Hudson River on a barge or when the world's largest transport plane, an Anatov 124, flew a tree in from Ohio.

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Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center
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According to Thrillist, this isn't like your at-home Christmas tree: cold outdoor temperatures keep it fresh, so it doesn't require water.

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Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center
Bettmann Archive/Getty

By the 1980s, the tree reached another milestone: most lights used. The year 1986 boasted a then-record 20,000 lights.

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Christmas Tree - Rockefeller
John Stillwell/PA/Getty

The 1996 tree was pretty grand, but what came in 1999 was even greater: the largest Rockefeller Center tree ever, hailing from Killingworth, Connecticut, and standing 100-ft. tall.

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The 2001 tree had special significance: In tribute to the lives lost on Sept. 11 of that year, decorations were in red, white and blue. But by 2004, it was multi-colored again and featured a star made of Swarovski crystals, a tradition that continues today.

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84th Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting
Noam Galai/WireImage

The second-largest tree to ever grace Rockefeller Center, 2016's centerpiece stood at 94-ft. tall and weighed 14 tons. Angie and Graig Eichler of Oneonta, New York, donated the Norway Spruce, which made its way into Manhattan over the George Washington Bridge.

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85th Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony
Michael Loccisano/Getty

Weighing 12 tons and measuring 75-ft. tall, 2017's Norway Spruce came from Jason Perrin of State College, Pennsylvania.

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86th Annual Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony
Nicholas Hunt/WireImage

The 75-year-old, 72-ft. tall Norway spruce "grew up" 70 miles outside Manhattan in upstate Wallkill, New York. According to the Rockefeller Center blog, the tree lived on the property of N.Y.C. transplants and recent retirees Shirley Figueroa and Lissette Gutierrez and was visited five years prior by Rockefeller Center head gardener Erik Pauze.

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The Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center
Benno Schwinghammer/picture alliance/Getty

Carol Schultz of Florida, New York, planted her tree 60 years prior in hopes that it would someday be the Rockefeller Center tree, according to the New York Times. "I would talk to it now and then since it's been small," she said. The message: "Someday you're going to be there." Schultz called the 77-ft. Norway spruce her "80th birthday present to the world."

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Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center
Gary Hershorn/Getty

"See? Girlfriend just needed better lighting and a few extensions," Today's Savannah Guthrie joked after the lighting of the 2020 tree, which drew a lot of jokes after appearing quite sparse upon its arrival in N.Y.C.

The 75-ft. tall tree was found at Daddy Al's General Store in Oneonta, New York. After it went up, it had the Internet abuzz, thanks to some bare patches and less-than-perky branches.

"Wow, you all must look great right after a two-day drive, huh?" the Rockefeller Center Instagram account wrote back to commenters, adding, "Just wait until I get my lights on!"

Crews added some branches to the tree — along with the signature sparkly décor — before the big lighting on Dec. 2.

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89th Rockefeller Tree Lighting in NYC
Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Last year's 79-ft. Norway spruce was scouted from Elkton, Maryland, making it the first tree from the Old Line State.

It was donated from the yard of the Price family, who was present in N.Y.C. for the 80-year-old tree's arrival in the Big Apple in mid-November.

"We never thought a tree on our property would be selected for Rockefeller Center. Nope, not in a million years," Devon Price said on the Today show. "As a family, we've gone from, 'No, we can't let this tree go,' to now, we worry about it. We worry about how it survived a storm or a heavy rain or heavy wind. So, we're very excited to have it go to New York City."

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by SARAH YENESEL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (13644141h) The tree all lit up during the 2022 Rockefeller Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in New York, New York, USA, 30 November 2022. There are more than 50,000 multi-colored, energy-efficient LED lights on the 82-foot-tall tree. New York City lights Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, USA - 30 Nov 2022

It's here! The 2022 tree was lit the night of Nov. 30, illuminated by 50,000 LED bulbs and a shining Swarovski star on top.

According to Today, the Norway spruce is a towering 82-ft. tall, 50-ft. wide and tops out at 14 tons. The 85-year-old evergreen came from Queensbury, New York, a small town about three-and-a-half hours north of New York City. A video posted to the Rockefeller Center Instagram showed the early stages of the tree's journey to Manhattan.

The stunning topper is covered in 3 million crystals, and weighs almost 900 lbs., Today reports.

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