Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Lighting of the Tree

"Thousands of lights were burning on the green branches, and gaily-colored pictures, such as she had seen in the shop-windows, looked down upon her. The little maiden stretched out her hands toward them when — the match went out. The lights of the Christmas tree rose higher and higher, she saw them now as stars in heaven…"
~ Hans Christian Andersen

Recently, the wonderful blog Ephemeral New York told the story of how we came to string electric lights on Christmas trees. In 1882 an employee of Thomas Edison named Edward Johnson created a sensation among the New York society set when he strung crepe-paper-wrapped lights on his tree. Another 35 years passed before teenager Albert Sadacca, whose family owned a lighting company, proposed the first ready-made strings of colored lights. By the 1920s, even the White House had adopted Sadacca's idea.

White House Christmas tree, 1920s
from the archives of the Library of Congress
For most New Yorkers, and for many others as well, the words "Christmas tree" summon images of Rockefeller Center's gigantic fir and annual lighting ceremony. The tradition began in 1931 when workers who were building Rockefeller Center erected a 20-foot tree to celebrate their good fortune of being employed in the Great Depression. You can see a photo of the tree and a crowd of construction workers via the Time magazine link at the end of today's blog. [Note: An earlier version of this post included a photo of the first Rockefeller Center tree. However, since there seems to be some dispute about its fair use, I've removed it.]

Two years later, in 1933, Rockefeller Center made the tree a tradition. Here are a few photos taken over the years, all courtesy of the archives of the Museum of the City of New York.
Rockefeller Center 1934 by the great New York City
photographer Samuel Gottscho
A dramatic shot of the tree in 1945, as seen from Fifth Avenue 
Rockefeller Center, 1948

There's one more tree I want to show you. This was not in Rockefeller Center but in Dayton, Ohio.

This sad tree was in the home of Wilbur and Orville Wright circa 1900. As we celebrate our blessings, let's be grateful that the Wright brothers were so much better at building airplanes than decorating trees.

For more information, see:

"George, a camel, stepped on the foot of a Rockette; six sheep came off the elevator as three kings bearing gifts got on; human Christmas trees bumped into eight maids-a-milking at the water cooler and an elf came down with the flu."

~ William E. Geist

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