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New York's First Christmas Tree

Posted on December 03, 2015

New York Madison Square Park TreeWhile many New Yorkers might assume that Rockefeller Plaza has always been home to the city’s official tree lighting, for two decades the big event took place about 30 blocks south of 30 Rock, in a gathering that served as a model for the rest of the country.

In December 1912, Madison Square Park played host to New York’s first citywide Christmas tree. The idea of a big outdoor gathering to light up a tree was a novel one — most people celebrating the holiday did so in their homes, and any other large holiday celebrations had generally taken place in churches, bazaars, or theaters.

But in 1912, the city banded together to erect the first truly public tree in the country.

Unlike this year’s celebration, which gives New Yorkers a month to enjoy the evergreen smell and glittering lights, the city’s first tree didn’t light up until Christmas Eve. It was a striking evergreen, sourced from the forests of the Adirondacks and hauled to Madison Square Park. Instead of “Christmas Tree,” this was called the “Tree of Light” in newspapers and in promotions, and with good reason: illuminating it required 2,300 colored electric bulbs (city officials had only planned on 1,300 lights, creating a last-minute scramble as it was being prepared).

On the big day, crowds began gathering in the snow-covered park by early afternoon, with thousands there by the time church bells chimed at 4:50. Finally, as 25,000 New Yorkers pressed together in the park, a call of trumpets announced something the city had never seen before: the lighting of a huge public Christmas tree. As the electric bulbs ignited, including the brilliant “Star of Bethlehem” at the top of the tree, the crowd cheered.

Read the full story at New York Press.

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