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America’s Christmas tree: The hunt for the iconic Rockefeller tree

Why We Wrote This

Like hanging treasured ornaments and decorating gingerbread, for millions of Americans the annual lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is a beloved tradition and a comforting symbol of the holidays. 

Diane Bondareff/AP
The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, seen here Nov. 28, 2018, in New York, is a holiday tradition that has drawn crowds for decades. The 72-foot tall Norway spruce is covered with more than 50,000 multi-colored LED lights and a new Swarovski star and will remain lit until Jan. 7.

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Heather Gianfriddo and her mother Jane D’Alessandro are standing in the middle of Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, waiting to fulfill a lifelong dream: to see, in person, the lighting of the Rockefeller Christmas tree. “It’s such a tradition, and it’s such a symbol of Christmas,” says Ms. Gianfriddo, who made the trip with her mother from Toronto. They had come with tens of thousands of others on a chilly evening this holiday season to witness the 86th lighting of the tree, a 72-foot-tall Norway spruce from upstate New York, decorated with more than 50,000 LED lights and a nine-foot-wide Swarovski star. Each year, the center’s head gardener, Erik Pauze, scouts states from New York to Ohio to find the perfect tree. Mr. Pauze found this year’s tree five years ago during a drive in upstate New York. He kept his eye on it over the years, finally deciding this was the year to select the majestic spruce. As the tree is lit, 8-year-old Daniel, visiting with his mom, Nicole Gerena, jumps up and down in excitement. “It’s a Christmas miracle!” 

Heather Gianfriddo and her mother Jane D’Alessandro are standing in the middle of Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, waiting to fulfill a lifelong dream.

For the past 30 years or so, since Heather was a 4-year-old girl, they’ve been watching the lighting of the famous Rockefeller Center Christmas tree every year on TV – a long-standing holiday tradition that also marked the evening they trimmed their own tree at home in Toronto, Canada.

“It’s such a tradition, and it’s such a symbol of Christmas,” says Ms. Gianfriddo, who made the trip with her mother both to celebrate her 35th birthday and to check off an item on their bucket list. 

“I started the same tradition with my three kids, and they’re watching at home tonight – maybe they’ll see us! But we’ve always wanted to come see the lighting in person, and so, finally, we’re here.”

They had come with tens of thousands of others on a chilly evening this holiday season to witness the 86th lighting of the Rockefeller Christmas tree, a 72-foot-tall Norway spruce from upstate New York this year, decorated with over 50,000 LED lights and a 9-foot wide Swarovski star.

Perhaps the iconic tree doesn’t carry the same nostalgic cachet that it used to, and like New York’s other holiday traditions – including Radio City’s Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes – younger generations may view these traditions as bursts of a much wider kaleidoscope of American holiday customs.

But Veronica Rubio, a Millennial from Texas who is now a retail worker in Long Island, was excited to witness the lighting and share it with her 7-year-old son, John. “It’s my first year living in New York, so I just wanted to experience a little bit of a tradition we’ve always watched on TV, since I was a girl,” she says, standing with her friend Nicole Gerena, who came with her two young sons.

“It’s a Christmas miracle!” says Ms. Gerena’s 8-year-old son Daniel, jumping up and down in excitement. “Almost this whole town must like Christmas!” he exclaims, looking up at the skyscrapers surrounding Rockefeller Center, the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, and the looming unlit spruce in front of them. “Everyone likes Christmas, and I think this tree is really famous! Mom, how did it get here?”

Finding the perfect tree

In fact, another Rockefeller tradition is to tell the story of how the center’s head gardener, Erik Pauze, has the way-fun job of scouting out Christmas-worthy trees from New York to Ohio to Pennsylvania.

“It’s an all-year process, where I’m constantly looking for trees to put on the list,” Mr. Pauze told AM New York. “I go around and visit prospective trees.”

Pauze, who’s been working at Rockefeller Center for 30 years, took on the job of finding each year’s tree in 2010. That year, he spotted a majestic Norway spruce towering above surrounding trees during a drive to Pennsylvania to see his son play in a high school football game. He contacted the owner, and kept his eye on the tree for seven years, before deciding it was ready in 2017.

Pauze found this year’s tree five years ago during a drive in upstate New York. Glimpsing a grand Norway spruce in Wallkill, about two hours north of New York City, he turned around and hopped out of the car to get a closer look. He kept his eye on it over the years.

“This spring when I got out of the car I said, ‘Yup, this is the year to take the tree,’ ” Pauze told The Wall Street Journal. “It’s looking perfect.’’

The Rockefeller Center does not pay owners for the trees, according to officials. But Pauze has said that no property owner has ever turned him down after he’s inquired.

This year’s tree was donated by Shirley Figueroa and Lissette Gutierrez, a retired married couple from the Bronx, a borough of New York, who purchased the property in Wallkill in 2017. The previous owner told them that Rockefeller Center had been scouting the towering evergreen on the property.

While it was kind of a dream come true, the decision to donate the magnificent tree on their new upstate property was not easy. “Shirley is more of a crier than I am,” Ms. Gutierrez said of her wife of six years, according to The Poughkeepsie Journal. “So she’s had some emotional moments. But we know it’s going to a beautiful cause for everyone to enjoy.”

A.J. French, an airline pilot from Atlanta was enjoying the tree with his 6-year-old son, Zack, who had clamored to return to New York again this year after an exciting trip last year.

“Zack just loves reading about the city now ... so this year, he wanted to see the ‘big Christmas tree,’ too,” Mr. French says, smiling as his son looked up at the tree. 

Since 2007, each Rockefeller Christmas tree has been donated to Habitat for Humanity, which uses it for lumber to build new homes, according to the center.

Linda Robbins and Mindy Brady, both from New Jersey, are here because their husbands were chosen to help hoist the tree in place and get it ready to be decorated and lit for the 2018 holiday season.

“We’d probably come even if our husbands weren’t working,” Ms. Robbins says on the morning the tree arrived on a flatbed trailer, and her husband helped put it in place next to Rockefeller Center's famous ice rink. “But now it’s official,” she says to Ms. Brady. “Merry Christmas!”

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