8. The First Tree Was Paid For by Workers

first rockefeller christmas tree 1931

Construction 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.

In December 1931 most New Yorkers were suffering from the economic devastation caused by the Great Depression. On December 24 the New York Times reported a surplus of unsold Christmas trees since people weren’t able to afford them: “Christmas trees were a glut on the market yesterday…. More than 120 carloads of trees remain unsold.” In contrast the Rockefeller Center project employed close to 40,000 people desperate for work. So that Christmas Eve, the construction workers, grateful to have jobs, decided to pool their money and purchase one of those surplus trees.

They took a twenty foot balsam fir and put it up in the center of the newly cleared work site. The men decorated the tree with various items including tin cans, cranberries, and paper garlands made by some of their families. The tree was not lit, but the foreman placed a small table under it where he handed out the worker’s paychecks before they went home to their families for the holiday.