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madison square park christmas tree 1912 flatiron district new york untapped cities samantha sokolImage via Library of Congress

This day in New York City History marked the first public Christmas tree lighting in the nation. This tree was in Madison Square Park, before New Yorkers could even think of such an opulent celebration in Rockefeller center. The Madison Square Park tree was called the “Tree of Light” and it sparked a public Christmas tree trend across the nation. It was also mentioned as the hallmark of a “community Christmas” at the national tree lighting at the East Plaza of the US Capitol. 

This public Christmas tree was initiated by Emilie D. Lee Hereshoff, who was inspired by the social activism of the time. Hereshoff saw the ceremony as a way to provide a Christmas tree lighting for everyone, but especially those who couldn’t afford a tree of their own. Event organizers were drowned with requests to “see the tree”, so there was a significant effort to ensure that the event would be free and outdoors.

This tree lighting was meant to be a proper affair, and it would align with Jacob Riis’ “sane” and alcohol-free public New Years Eve celebration. The Adirondack Club donated a tree sixty feet high and twenty feet wide, and the cost of transport was covered by an anonymous railroad worker. At least 20,000 New Yorkers of all social classes attended the tree lighting ceremony. The New York Times also did the 1912 version of a live blog: in an article published on the 25th, they included timed updates, and a list of every song performed by the chorus. They also published a poem about the tree:

 Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 1.07.27 PMImage via New York Times archives

For more on Christmas trees, check out these seven alternatives to the Rockefeller Christmas tree, and 5 little known facts about the Rockefeller center tree.

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