first-rockefeller-christmas-tree-1931Construction workers waiting to receive their paychecks on Christmas Eve, 1931. They erected the tree spontaneously in gratitude for their jobs. Photo courtesy of Rockefeller Center.

Last year, we brought to you 7 alternative Christmas trees to the crowded, hyped one at Rockefeller Center. This year, we’ll bring you back in time to when Christmas tree lightings were much simpler than they were today. The above image shows the very first Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in 1931. A simple affair, by the looks of it but the tradition of public Christmas tree displays actually began in Madison Square Park, in 1912. The next year, the annual City Hall Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony would begin. Below are more examples from Prospect Park, Madison Square Park, Washington Square Park and more.

The first tree in Madison Square Park was actually a progressive movement to address the city’s poor. According to The Bowery Boys, “Plans for an outdoor public Christmas tree were devised by Emilie Herreshoff, wife of the prominent chemical scientist J.B.F. Herreshoff, in emulation of European civic customs. It would be a clean, proper, somber affair, closely tied to Jacob Riis’s equally non-riotous New Years Eve celebration scheduled the week after –righteous counter-programming to the Times Square celebration. Riis believed that the holidays were not a time wild behavior, and these events would provide the poor with ‘acceptable’ alternatives.”

The tree itself came from the Adirondacks, adorned with lights from the Edison Company.  Today the Star of Hope monument in Madison Square Park commemorates the approximate location of the first tree lighting.

Photo from Library of Congress

Washington Square Park Christmas Tree

The Christmas Tree tradition in Washington Square Park began in 1924.

Prospect Park Christmas Tree

In 1920, civic groups erected a 20-foot tree in Prospect Park, to be outdone by 1926 in height and number of bulbs.

Looking for something more off-the-beaten path this year? Check out 7 alternative Christmas trees in NYC and the Secret Christmas Tree in Central Park.

This article jointly written by Michelle Young and Anna Brown.

 1939 World’s Fair, Brooklyn Borough Hall, Greeley Square, madison square park, Prospect Park, Rockefeller Center, Tudor City, vintage photos, Washington Square Park

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