Posts Tagged ‘Christmas in New York City’

This is the first Rockefeller Center Christmas tree

November 28, 2016

It made its debut on Christmas Eve 1931, in the muddy pit that would one day become Rockefeller Center.

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A group of mostly Italian immigrant hardhats knocking down the brownstones on the eventual site of 30 Rock chipped in to buy it—a very humble 18-foot balsam.

rockefellercenter1945edwardratcliffx2010-11-8801They put up the skinny tree inside the construction site and draped it in tin cans, paper, and tinsel—as well as traditional cranberry garlands and foil from blasting caps used during dynamiting, according to a 2015 New York Times piece.

Public Christmas trees in parks had been a thing since the first one graced Madison Square Park in 1912.

But the workers in the pit were honoring more than just the holiday (and the fact that they had jobs during this Depression year).

They were celebrating because it was payday, with each man receiving his wages in an envelope beside their tree.

Two years later, with Rockefeller Center completed, the owners decided to erect and decorate a real Christmas tree, a 65-footer that went up outside the then–RCA building.

rockefellercentertree1972c2010-11-8796Every year since, the holiday tree has delighted national crowds during its annual lighting ceremony and has been visited by hordes of thousands.

In its 85-year history, the tree has had its disruptions. Thanks to a war-mandated blackout, the two trees at 30 Rock weren’t lit in 1944.

In 1979, in an effort to bring attention to the American hostages held in Iran at the time, two men climbed the tree. One hung on for 80 minutes chanting “Free the 50.” (He was given a summons for trespassing.)

In 1971, with recycling catching on, the tree was turned into mulch for the first time—a tradition that continues once the tree has completed its duty come January.

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[Top photo: AP, 1931; second photo: MCNY 1945, x2010.11.8801; third photo: MCNY, 1973, x2010.11.8796; fourth image: MCNY, 1945, F2011.33.2122Q]

New York inspires “The Night Before Christmas”

December 14, 2015

Nightbeforechristmas1901‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”

It’s the Christmas classic that helped create the image of the modern Santa Claus, a “jolly old elf” who arrives on a reindeer-driven sleigh, sneaking down chimneys on Christmas Eve to fill stockings with toys.

First published anonymously in a Troy, New York newspaper in 1823, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” became an instant hit. In the 1830s, it was revealed to have been written by Clement Clarke Moore.

Moore, the descendant of a colonial English family, lived with his wife and children on a vast inherited estate called Chelsea in what was then the hinterlands of Manhattan.

Nightbeforechristmas1886As a theology professor, Moore wrote dry volumes inspired by ancient cultures.

But the whimsical and imaginative “A Visit From St. Nicholas” is surely influenced by life in early 19th century New York City.

The poem “he is said to have composed in 1822, at his father’s imposing tree-shaded country house in old Chelsea Village, at the corner of what is now 23rd Street and Ninth Avenue,” explained a New York Times piece from 1926.

He wrote it, “simply as a Christmas present for his two daughters, making St. Nicholas the hero at the suggestion of a ‘portly, rubicund Dutchman living in the neighborhood.”

ClementclarkemoorehouseLegend has it that Moore wrote the poem on a snowy day while riding in Chelsea in a sleigh.

“His Santa Claus was supposedly based on the family’s plump and jovial Dutch handyman, and it was while being driven home one night that the jingling bells on the horse inspired the poem,” according to When Christmas Comes, by Anne Harvey.

That sleigh ride may have been taken for a last-minute shopping trip to get a holiday turkey for charity. (Above, a drawing of Moore’s Chelsea home, before he subdivided the property and helped develop the residential neighborhood.)

Nightbeforechristmas1900A document that was part of a Santa Claus exhibit at the New-York Historical Society two decades ago showed that “Moore was a slave owner, and some historians have recounted a journey to the market to buy a Christmas turkey, the event said to have inspired the poem, in a sleigh driven by a slave,” reported the New York Times in 1995.

“A Visit From St. Nicholas” borrows the image of an airborne, tobacco-smoking Santa Claus from Moore’s literary contemporary, writer Washington Irving.

“In 1809’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Washington Irving described St. Nick flying over the treetops, bringing presents, smoking a pipe, and ‘laying his finger beside his nose,’ stated the Museum of Play.

The red suit was added later, but otherwise, This version of St. Nicholas/Santa Claus is the one we know today—though I think the pipe has been axed in these smoking-averse times.

Nightbeforechristmas18982Every December for more than a century, the beloved “A Visit From St. Nicholas” is read aloud at the Church of the Intercession on 155th Street.

A candlelight procession then heads up the street to Trinity Cemetery, where Moore and his family members are buried.

If you can’t make it to the reading at the church, give “A Visit From St. Nicholas” a read this season.

[Images of rare 19th-20th century volumes of the poem courtesy of thenightbeforechristmas.com]

Lining up for Salvation Army Christmas baskets

December 22, 2014

Ever wonder exactly where your money goes when you drop bills or coins into a Salvation Army kettle?

In the early 1900s, the cash in those kettles helped fund Christmas dinner for New York’s less fortunate—include a takeaway dinner basket with enough food to feed six people.

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The line to receive one of these baskets stretched down the block on 43rd Street and Lexington Avenue on December 25, 1908.

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“A crowd of 5,000 eager men, women, and children formed a long line early yesterday morning outside the Grand Central Palace, waiting for the annual Christmas basket distribution of the Salvation Army,” wrote The New York Times the next day.

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“There was not only dinner waiting, but staff Capt. Welde, from a large basket, distributed nickels for carfare, while further along the needy were provided with clothing.

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“The staff brass band provided music and Police Capt. Landtry of the East 51st Street Station kept order. There was also a stereopticon exhibition and later in the day children received presents from a mammoth Christmas tree.”

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Photographer George Bain captured these images of the Christmas Day wait in line, and then the faces of recipients as they took their goods home.

He also had the foresight to take a photo of the contents of the basket, above.

[Photos: LOC]

How New York invented the Christmas tree

December 18, 2011

The electric-lit Christmas tree, that is.

Before about 1900, trees were lit with wax candles—a dangerous tradition that caused deadly house fires every season.

But in 1882, Edward Johnson, a VP for Thomas Edison, came up with an idea: He put a string of 80 twinkling electric lights—colored red, white, and blue with crepe paper—around his own Christmas tree in his Fifth Avenue home.

His electric lights attracted media attention and became a sensation among the wealthy.

But most people still had a mistrust of electricity in their homes (or perhaps they couldn’t afford this new technology) and stuck to candles.

That’s where Albert Sadacca comes in.

Sadacca, a teenager whose family owned a lighting company in the city, was reportedly horrified by a 1917 New York fire sparked by candles on a Christmas tree.

He suggested that his family manufacture colored strings of light to be sold as tree decorations. By the 1920s, the idea had caught on.

[Top photo: Christmas tree at the Greenwich settlement house at Hudson Park; bottom, kids holding hands around a tree, both from the NYPL digital collection]

Christmas trees piled on the New York waterfront

December 15, 2010

“A shipment of Christmas trees unloaded on the New York City waterfront,” reads the caption to this haunting 1924 photo, from the New York Public Library digital collection.

Within hours, they were likely picked up by tree peddlers, then sold to New Yorkers who placed them in their living rooms . . . only to be taken back to the side of the road after December 25.