The Annual Tree Raising at Rockefeller Center

By: Dr. Nathaniel Kernell

To judge from the blurred photo, Rockefeller Center’s first Christmas tree was an afterthought. High-steel men, framing 30 Rock had lined up to collect their wages. The channel gardens, as yet unpaved, were strewn with excavated rubble; a steam shovel stood idle. But a scraggly pine, already 15-20 feet tall, randomly festooned with swags of tinsel, stood ramrod-straight at the southeast corner of the present skating rink. The year was 1931, rock bottom of the Depression. Maybe the men in line, rivet catchers, buckers-up and gun men, high-steel dare-devils all, were in a festive mood because they weren’t going to starve, at least not this month.
We know what it’s become. Moo-oo, baa-aa. Channel Gardens a labyrinth of cattle chutes for tourists. Celebs. Glitzy special effects.  Maybe the fat toad himself will drop in from the White House, square head, bad hair and all. Hope I live to see him in an orange jumpsuit matching his face—a Christmas miracle!
That’s the tree lighting, if you’re a masochist and can get within a mile of it. But, the tourists and social media have not found the tree raising. Get it while it’s hot!
Shape-up around 830; the tree’s parked on a flatbed on 49th Street in front of an art-deco medallion in terra cotta gracing One Rock. A female titan (Progress) holds up unmoored cres- set of divine fire. Pegasus (Inspiration) behind her crimps his foreleg to stamp the ground so the sacred spring of the muses can well up. An eagle (Power) looks back at the fire the she- titan is offering—if you can take it.
The tree itself has a painted tarpaulin lashed to it, “To NYC Special Delivery, Rockefeller Cen- ter Christmas Tree.” It’s netted up for transport like any Christmas tree, but on a different scale. The flatbed belongs to TORSILIERI Far Hills, New Jersey and I wonder if the tree lift is mobbed up, adding to the fun. OK, I’ve seen Goodfellas one too many times.
It’s a union shop, ironworkers collecting overtime, nobody making any sudden moves. I was afraid I’d be late, but they haven’t even started.
I pick out the main players. A stocky man in duster, quilted vest, low-crowned, battered canvas hat, all brown, neatly trimmed silver beard. My guess, he shepherded the tree down from upstate. The foreman, his symbol of rank a white hard hat with a swoosh of stars and stripes, shades of Mike the welder from The Fountainhead. With vintage Irish charm, he schmoozes with a lady wearing blinking antlers and a goofy smile. All morning he will be welcoming random people. Besides PR, his job will turn out to be choreographing maneuvers: get the flatbed around the block, position the cherry-picker, tell who to do what when. From their casual body language, I’d say Mike and duster man go back a ways.
Now the tree’s hooked up to the crane, a shiny red, outsized toy that I’d have killed for as alit- tle kid. The crane operator looks out of place, a slight, balding man, only player wearing spectacles, bookish look. Even as he waves and smiles at people he probably hasn’t seen since last November, you can tell he’s an introvert. But, a diamond flashes in one earlobe, caught by a sunbeam slicing between skyscrapers; from the side, he’s combed his remaining hair back like a rooster’s crest. His moves are brusque and economical as he climbs into the crane and revs its motor.
I move in front of 30 Rock and look around. Front and center of the crowd, a skinny, old guy in a faded ball cap, forgot to put his teeth in, but apparently doesn’t have to—on either side of him a bevy of beauties a generation and a half younger, who learned to talk and put on makeup in Jersey. Everybody, Mike, the man in the duster, the flak from Channel X news, walks over to show respect. The boss of bosses, apparently. I start to point my camera but think better of it. OK, I’ve seen Goodfellas one too many times.
Another crew, all speaking Spanish, fans out and climbs into the tree. Their boss wears a bat- tered white hard hat with a decal: red MOSQUE in a blue circle with a line through it, meaning he goes way back to the bigoted flap over that projected Islamic Center a couple of blocks from Ground Zero. The twin towers cast their lengthening shadows late in America’s after- noon . . . but the sun has moved, now bouncing a dazzling spot off a glass wall across 50th street.
Christmas carols in early November: somebody put a boom box in the back of a truck that held the tackle for lifting the tree. It’s an afterthought, like the first tree.
For the next hour they comb spiderwebs, dead leaves, bird nests, whatnot, out of the tree. That’s an hour by the clock. Did I mention it looked like a union shop? A couple of empty cof- fee cups rest on the footed red brace that will anchor the crane as it swings the tree aloft.
Mike says something to a young roughneck with red hair, a bushy beard and huge mirror shades. Red clips off pinecones one after another and drops them into a pouch. He walks along the front of the crowd handing them out. Breaking New York’s prime directive, I make eye contact—got one!
I can’t quite bring the players into focus. Duster man, the toothless don, the scholar in the crane with his diamond stud. Who are they? Fascinating.
Places! Duster man is wearing a hard hat now. All smiles, Mike busts a pushing move with both hands palms out and the crowd falls back toward 49th street. A motor thrums and the tree rises into the air, slowly tilting upward. A few people laugh and whistle at the obvious. The trunk wavers on high before dropping precisely into the golden circle inscribed “Rockefeller Christmas Tree.” The motor revs again as the crane’s hook pulls the tree vertical. Fine tuning: Mike and a couple of his ironworkers brace the trunk from an Iwo Jima stance as it slowly turns and settles. They have the eye to tell when it’s exactly perpendicular.

That was then, this is now. I’m walking east on 49. First thing I see, a double-decker tourist bus. Tourist buses are to events what a kiss is to a wise guy. The crowd is twice the size of last year. A nutcracker soldier, weirdly resembling the redheaded roughneck from last year, snares a few strays into FAO Schwartz. I recognize Duster man and Mike, wearing instead of duster, battered hat and a swoosh helmet, blank hard hats and identical lime-green day-glo vests stamped “Rockefeller Center.” The crane operator’s hair has turned gray within the past year; no diamond stud in evidence. No carols from a boom box. I notice that 30 Rock itself has been renamed the Comcast Building, stamped in the same gold lettering as the storied ad- dress used to be. Loud-voiced herd the swollen crowd back against the wall.
The tourists and the monotony monitors have found another event. It was fun while it lasted.