The annual Christmas tree lighting at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York City is a hallmark of the holiday season and has been since long before the “War on Christmas” began. Heck, it’ll probably be there long after the “War on Christmas” ends, if a day ever comes.
94 feet tall, the Norway spruce that lights up 30 Rock has five miles of mult-colored LEDs and a Swarovski star packed with 25,000 crystals. Modesty is not this tree’s strong suit. The same could not be said for the first Rockefeller Christmas tree, however.
85 years ago, on Christmas eve 1931, construction workers stopped building Rockefeller Center long enough to put up a 20-foot-tall balsam tree, which they decorated with cranberries, paper, and tin cans. You can see this Charlie Brown-esque tree in the photo above, along with a foreman “standing on a wooden crate and passing out holiday checks and bonuses to laborers wearing overalls and boots coated in dust,” says Time.
This was all during the depression, so everyone was understandably pretty miserable. In fact, Rockefeller Center construction was responsible for putting tens of thousands people back to work. “It was also the single largest and most expensive private development in the history of the world at the time,” says Daniel Okrent, author of Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center and a former LIFE magazine managing editor.
Two years later, in 1933, the official Christmas tree lighting ceremony kicked off “when a 40-ft.-tall tree illuminated with 700 lights debuted outside the old RCA building. And while NBC broadcasted the festivities on the radio, the first televised tree lighting ceremony took place in 1951 on The Kate Smith Show.”