Later today, millions of TV viewers and thousands of tourists will flock to see the official lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, a storied and festive holiday tradition celebrating its 80th year. In 1933, the year Rockefeller Center opened to the public, a 40-foot tree was adorned with 700 lights. But today, in typical American fashion, the tradition’s been supersized: 45,000 energy-efficient LEDs bathe a 76-foot-tall Norway spruce in brilliant holiday cheer.
Like so many inspirational icons before it, the Rock Center Christmas celebration comes from humble roots. On Christmas Eve 1931, it wasn’t as easy as it is today for Americans to forget about life for awhile. Only two years after the stock market crash of ’29, the country was still embroiled in the throes of the Great Depression. John D. Rockefeller Jr., the son of the famed oil tycoon with whom he shares his name, was ambitiously making progress towards the completion of Rockefeller Center.
Even with Christmas approaching just the next morning, December 24, 1931 proved to be yet another workday (a Thursday, no less) for the men tasked with completing the construction. But that didn’t stop some of the more ambitious workers under Rockefeller’s employ, who took it upon themselves to bring a bit of Christmas cheer to their excavated workspace.
Erecting a 20-foot tree in the muddy footprint of what would become one of the city’s grandest and most heralded attractions, workers hung strings of cranberries and paper garlands amongst its branches. Tin cans proved to be adequately fitting ornaments. In the left of the photo, a man stands next to a wooden soapbox; he is about to distribute paychecks to a group of tired and dirty laborers who, despite being on the clock, still appear jovial enough in the presence of an Associated Press photographer.
The result isn’t exactly the gigantic display of festive cheer we see today, but it’s just as–if not more–poignant.