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Rockefeller Christmas tree lights up to begin holiday season

By Ray Downs
1/6
Rockefeller Christmas tree lights up to begin holiday season
The Christmas Tree is lit for the first time of the season at the annual Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony at Rockefeller Center in New York City on Wednesday. Thousands of revelers crowded the sidewalks for the event. The Tree will remain lit and can be viewed until 9pm on January 7, 2018. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

Nov. 29 (UPI) -- The Rockefeller Christmas tree was lit up Wednesday night, continuing a tradition that dates back to the 1930s.

"The #RockCenterXMAS Tree is lit, and the holiday season has officially begun!" the Rockefeller Center tweeted.

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The lighting took place after several musical acts performed at Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, including Gwen Stefani, Seal, Leslie Odom Jr. and Brett Eldredge.

But the star of the show this year is an 80-year-old, 75-foot tall Norway spruce from State College, Penn.

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To get a tree that big, it takes years of scouting. Erik Pauze, Rockefeller Center's head gardener, told AM New York that he's had his eye on the tree since he attended a football game at Penn State in 2010.

"It's an all-year process, where I'm constantly looking for trees to put on the list," Pauze said. "I go around and visit prospective trees. If you get a tree that's halfway decent looking, and you go visit it and it looks good in the picture but you get up close, and it's not, then you go around that area, because maybe the climate and the weather isn't too bad, so there may be another good one there."

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Pauze's constant search for the perfect tree is a reminder of just how far the Rockefeller tree has evolved from its origins. What is now one of the most popular annual events in New York City, accompanied by celebrity guests and corporate sponsors, began as a humble Christmas celebration by Depression-era construction workers.

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In 1931, demolition workers at the Rockefeller Center construction site inadvertently created the American tradition when they pitched to buy a 20-foot high balsam fir with their own money. The workers' families also pitched in by making garlands to decorate the tree. Impressed by what they saw, Rockefeller Center officials decided to have a Christmas tree in front of the building every year -- and even put up a 50-footer in 1933.

Over the next few decades, the Rockefeller tree became larger and, at times, reflected events in the country.

In 1942, during the height of World War II, the tree was decorated with patriotic symbols -- including red, white and blue unlit globes and painted wooden stars. To support the U.S. military, no materials essential to the war effort were used in the decorations.

The Rockefeller Christmas tree also grew as the tradition did. What started out as the 20-foot fir in 1931 became an 82-foot tree in 1951. During the '50s, often described as a decade of prosperity in the United States, the Rockefeller tree became so big that workers needed scaffolding to decorate it.

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In 1971, as Americans became more concerned with environmental issues, Rockefeller Center mulched and recycled its Christmas tree for the first time -- another tradition that continues to this day.

"We mill it, then get it down to what's usable and kiln-dry it," Pauze told AM New York. "You're not going to be able to build an entire house, but you'll get a couple of window or door frames. It's a pretty cool piece to have in your house."

In 1999, the last year of the millennia, Rockefeller Center put up its tallest tree yet -- a 100-footer from Killingworth, Ct. That record still stands.

In December 2001, less than three months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Rockefeller Center once again decorated its tree in patriotic red, white and blue colors.

''This is really a salute to the heroes, traditions, strengths and unity of the United States of America,'' then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said, according to The New York Times.

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