The Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center is an iconic symbol of the holidays in New York City. Nestled in one of the most famous corners in town—or in the world, rather—it stands almost as tall as the skyscrapers themselves, casting a shadow over the jolly ice skaters below. Manhattan wouldn't be nearly as magical around the holidays without its famous tree.
Best of all, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is one of many free things to do and see in the city during the holiday season. Even the televised, star-studded lighting ceremony is free and open to the public. Needless to say, this festive decoration is a must-see for anyone visiting New York City during December.
About the Tree
The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is a tradition that dates back to 1931, when Depression-era construction workers erected the first tree on the center plaza block. These days, it stands up to 90 feet tall and is almost always a Norway spruce. It's required to be at least 75 feet tall and have a minimum diameter of 45 feet; however, the director of Rockefeller Center gardens has said that he prefers it to be slightly bigger.
The Norway spruce that grow in forests don't typically reach these proportions, which means the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree tends to come from someone's yard. The tree donor doesn't get compensation for the tree, only the pride of providing New York City with its most famous tree. Although it's loaded with five miles of lights, the tree is never adorned with traditional ornaments. At the top sits a massive glowing star.
Prior to 2007, the tree had been recycled each January and donated to the Boy Scouts of America (the mulch) and the U.S. Equestrian Team in New Jersey (who would use the largest part of the trunk as an obstacle jump). Now, after the season ends, the tree is milled, treated, and made into lumber that Habitat for Humanity uses for building homes.
The Lighting Ceremony
The ceremony during which the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is lit is one of the biggest events in New York City. People by the thousands flood into the free event to see popular musicians singing carols and the Radio City Rockettes perform their high kicks. Ice skaters also perform routines at the Rockefeller Ice Rink.
The streets around Rockefeller Center are typically blocked off by late afternoon and by the time they are, you can bet they'll be packed with people. The tree is visible from the area of the ice rink and from the pedestrian walkway in the Channel Gardens. Another small area is between 49th and 50th Streets on 5th Avenue.
Performances take place in front of the Prometheus Statue in the lower concourse square. For the best view, get there mid-day and try to get in the first several rows along the perimeter of the ice rink. The 2019 tree lighting ceremony will take place on December 4. It will remain lit and on display on the plaza between West 48th and 51st Streets and Fifth and Sixth Avenues until the beginning of January.
Hours of Illumination
The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is typically illuminated from 5:30 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. daily, except on Christmas and New Year's Eve. On Christmas, the tree is illuminated for 24 hours and on New Year's Eve the lights are turned off at 9 p.m. On the last day, the tree will be lit until 9 p.m.
Rockefeller Center is located in the center of a complex of buildings between 47th and 50th Streets and 5th and 7th Avenues. The closest subway trains to Rockefeller Center are the B, D, F, and M trains, which stop at 47-50 Streets/Rockefeller Center, or the 6, which goes to 51st Street/Lexington Avenue.
More to Do at Rockefeller Center
Once you visit the tree, you may want to grab a bite to eat. There are plenty of nearby places to grab a quick sandwich or you could sit down and enjoy a cocktail with a view at Bar SixtyFive at the Rainbow Room (located on the 65th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza). With windows soaring 10 feet high and 30-mile views in almost every direction, Bar SixtyFive provides a bird's-eye view of Manhattan. There's plenty to do, see, and eat in the Rockefeller Center neighborhood.