2. America’s first Christmas Tree lighting occurred in Madison Square

madison square park christmas tree 1912
Image via Library of Congress.

Every year, people around the country await the Christmas tree lighting at Rockefeller Center to ring in the holiday season. Though it’s now a nationally popular tradition, American Christmas tree displays actually find their origins in Madison Square Park. The first, albeit simple, public Christmas tree lighting occurred here in 1912. The Madison Square Park tree was called the “Tree of Light,” and it was also mentioned as the hallmark of a “community Christmas” at the national tree lighting at the East Plaza of the US Capitol. The Adirondack Club donated a tree 60 feet tall and 20 feet wide, and the cost of transport was covered by an anonymous railroad worker. Over 20,000 New Yorkers of all social classes attended the tree lighting ceremony.

Interestingly, the tree was erected for more than just the holidays; it was part of a progressive movement to address New York City’s socioeconomic inequalities. According to The Bowery Boys, Emilie D. Lee Herreshoff planned the tree lighting to emulate European civic customs as a “clean, proper, somber affair, closely tied to Jacob Riis’s equally non-riotous New Year’s Eve celebration scheduled the week after — righteous counter-programming to the Times Square celebration.” Riis believed that the holidays weren’t a time for wild behavior, and that events like Christmas tree lightings would give the poor “acceptable” alternatives. Today, the Star of Hope monument in the park honors the approximate location of the first tree lighting.