Each December, New York City’s Rockefeller Center Christmas tree stands brightly lit over the Plaza’s skating rink. It’s the iconic image of a big-city Christmas, and in urban centers across the U.S., huge trees rise in prominent public places.
But where do these holiday trees come from, and who decides which one should be the tree for a city’s annual festivities?
Historic Christmas Trees
Compared to the near 100-foot-tall, multi-thousand-bulb trees of today, Rockefeller Center’s first Christmas tree was a Depression-era display that looked like something out of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Construction workers for the Rockefeller complex pooled together their funds in December 1931 for a 20-foot balsam fir. The workers’ families then decorated the tree with simple, handmade garlands. Two years later, the first annual tree lighting ceremony took place, and the ice skating rink followed in 1936.
Though tree sizes have varied over the years, the traditional Rockefeller Center tree is usually an elderly Norway spruce at least 75 feet tall and 45 feet wide, according to the center’s website. The tallest on-record was a 100-foot-tall iteration in 1999, and this year’s tree – estimated to be 85- to 90-years-old –comes in at 82 feet high.
Rockefeller Center’s head gardener, Erik Pauze, selects the tree each year and plans how it gets to 30 Rock from its origin. The method of delivery can vary since the trees come from various states.
In 1997, the tree traveled by barge down the Hudson River from Stony Point, N.Y. The following year, an Antonov An-124 Ruslan – one of the world’s largest cargo planes – delivered the tree to New York City from Richfield, Ohio.
In 1999, the record-tall tree hailed from Killingsworth, Conn., while this year’s tree in 2022 originated on a piece of vacant land in Queensbury, N.Y., about 200 miles north of the Big Apple.
How Cities Select the Christmas Tree
In the Pioneer Courthouse Square of Portland, Ore., a 70-foot-tall Douglas fir stands planted into a 6-foot-deep subterranean tree well.
Before it’s lit in what is affectionately called “Portland’s Living Room,” Rodney Jacobs, an assistant unit manager for Stimson Lumber’s North Tree Farm, chooses the tree. Since 2002, Jacobs has been responsible for finding the city’s big tree, which always comes from one of Stimson’s farms.
The basic criteria, of course, are straightforward: The tree must be a Douglas fir, stand around 75-feet-tall, and have room for lots of lights.
This year’s tree came from property near Elsie, Ore., about 55 miles from where it ended up. Jacobs begins looking for the right tree in mid-September; when he finds a worthy specimen, a Pioneer Courthouse Square representative must also approve it.
After visiting the tree several times to view it from different angles in different light settings, the city clears a space in early October for the crane that will eventually move the big tree. Workers cut hundreds of extra 15-foot limbs from the trees surrounding the chosen tree and bundle them to transport with the big tree. Later, workers will attach the limbs with hooks to fill out the tree and give it the ideal Christmas shape.
City of Portland climbers then clamber up the tree, strap it to the crane (so it won’t fall and get damaged), and make the necessary cuts. Once workers carefully hoist it by the crane onto a flatbed hauling truck, the Douglas fir is properly readied for travel and driven into downtown Portland several days later.
In some cases, however, big-city trees aren’t always what they seem.
Seattle’s 45-foot-tall Westlake Center Christmas tree – which draws thousands for its post-Thanksgiving lighting ceremony – is artificial.
Just don’t tell the kids.
How Cities Remove the Huge Christmas Tree
The holiday season goes quick, of course, and big city trees must eventually come down.
At Rockefeller Center, the city takes down the annual Christmas tree in January. Once horizontal, workers cut it into large pieces and transport them to a New Jersey sawmill for further cuts. Afterward, a landscaping company dries, mills and planes the wood into usable lumber, which is sent to a Habitat for Humanity affiliate and eventually made into homes.
In Portland, Pioneer Courthouse Square works with the city’s parks department to chip the tree into mulch, which is used on trails in parks throughout the city.
While most of today’s big-city trees are as tall as 50 to 75 feet, some cities competed for the tallest tree in earlier decades of American Christmas culture.
In 1948 and 1949, Bellingham, Wash. – a small city about 80 miles north of Seattle – garnered international attention for erecting what was then the world’s largest Christmas trees in the middle of its downtown.
The first year, a 134-foot-tall Douglas fir was chosen, and they had to use a crane and 10 logging trucks to get it in place. The following Christmas, a 153-foot-tall Douglas fir took its place.
Transporting the 1949 tree to its downtown resting place was a spectacular act: Two logging trucks, lined nose-to-tail, moved the huge fir. The second truck driver received driving directions from the first via intercom telephone because thick branches obstructed his vision. In some places, the city widened roadside curves to accommodate the vehicles and their oversized load.
Once erected and lit, CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow famed the tree during a live radio broadcast from New York City. The following year, Seattle’s Northgate Shopping Center put up a 221-foot-tall Douglas fir.
To this day, Guinness World Records recognizes it as the tallest cut Christmas tree.