More than a century ago, the first public Christmas tree lighting in New York City took place in Madison Square Park. That 108-year tradition continues to this day and is commemorated year round. When all of the holiday lights go dark and the giant Christmas trees come down, Madison Square Park keeps the spirit of the season alive with the Star of Hope, a fixture of the park that marks the site of the first tree lighting.
The Star of Hope sits atop a decorative 30-foot cast-iron pole inside the park at 23rd Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues in a spot approximate to where the very first tree stood. Installed in 1916 to commemorate the first Christmas tree lighting, the star actually used to be taken off of the pole and placed atop the annual tree according to a New York Times article from 1940. The five-pointed star shined bright with twenty-two bulbs.
Image via Library of Congress
The first Madison Square Park Christmas tree was called “Tree of Light.” Cut down and delivered from the Adirondacks, it was illuminated by with lights from the Edison Company. Emilie D. Lee Hereshoff organized the event to provide a festive and free way for New Yorkers, especially those less fortunate and lonely souls, to celebrate the holidays. An estimated 20,000 New Yorkers attended that first tree lighting ceremony.
As a permanent fixture of the park, the star is meant to evoke the altruistic spirit of the holiday season which inspired Hereshoff. An inscription on the plaque in front of the states that the star is meant to “convey the spirit of hope, peace and goodwill all year long.”
Christmas tree lighting ceremonies have continued and spread throughout all of New York City since the first lighting in Madison Square Park. Even during this tumultuous holiday season, New Yorkers have found safe ways to celebrate and carry on the tradition. The Madison Square Park Conservancy hosted a virtual tree lighting ceremony this year, and at Rockefeller Center a new queuing system allows visitors to view the tree at a safe distance. Today, New Yorkers and visitors to the city can see Christmas trees at Rockefeller Center, on Wall Street, under the Washington Square Arch, at the South Street Seaport, and in so many other locations throughout the five boroughs. While trees and decorations will come and go, the Star of Hope will always be there whenever you need a boost of cheer. It lights up every night!