On Christmas Eve 1931, with the nation mired in the Great Depression, a group of construction workers erected a 20-ft. tree on the muddy site of what would become one of the city’s greatest architectural and commercial monuments. (Note: Today’s tree is seven stories high.) The tree’s decorations have come a long way since 1931, when tin cans and scrap paper replaced garlands and glass. In 1934, organizers festooned that year’s evergreen with 1,200 colored lights and ornaments shaped like dogs, horses, giraffes, sailboats and stars. A public-address system also piped in holiday tunes, creating the effect of a singing tree.
In 1944, in keeping with wartime blackout regulations, the trees remained unlit, as did every other outdoor Christmas tree in the city that year. After the war’s end in 1945, organizers more than made up for the previous years of darkness by using six ultraviolet light projectors to make all 700 fluorescent globes on that year’s tree appear to glow in the dark. The 1950s saw a white spray-painted tree, the return of garlands made of cranberries and popcorn (or, at least, plastic balls that resembled the festive foodstuffs) and 10-ft.-long aluminum icicles that turned treacherous in high winds.
The unique history of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree just makes me love it more. To think that it was there before the building even stood — insanity. See more photos from the tree’s history in this Time Magazine slideshow.