2 gennaio 2023
by Massimo Basile

The Italian story behind the Christmas tree in New York

Christmas tree at Rockfeller Center 
Christmas tree at Rockfeller Center 

No one ever complains that Christmas is too bright. Rather, we're told to dream big! Believe in the magic of Christmas! It’s time to shine! Like the jingle ladies taking selfies in front of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. Like the guy who - in the middle of all the tourists - suddenly gets down on one knee, pulls out a small blue box, takes out the ring and asks his girlfriend “Will you marry me?” While the people around her are oblivious, all busy taking pictures and videos of the tree, she is speechless for a moment, then she wells up, says yes and throws her arms around him with a kiss. You're there watching the scene and you’re not sure if it’s for real or a gag, because no one is there to film the moment. But you're wrong: the couple's friends are behind you, all with their cellphones pointed at them and clapping. This isn't a fairy tale, it's New York, where everything is merry and bright, as Bing Crosby would say, and glitter is the new black that makes the city so elegant and looks good with everything.

The Rockefeller Christmas Tree owes its existence to the Italians, and it could not have been otherwise

But the Rockefeller Christmas Tree owes its existence to the Italians, and it could not have been otherwise, as we will explain. For now, all you need to know is that it is there, about sixty feet away from you, beyond the people skating on the ice rink: it is an eighty-two-foot-tall Norway Spruce, illuminated by fifty thousand LEDs, connected by five miles of wire. It is around 90 years old and comes from Queensbury, New York. It was brought here on November 12 and was lit up on November 30 on live television. The brightly-lit attraction will remain throughout the holidays, then taken down, cut up, worked and transformed into a house for a family, as part of the Habitats for Humanity project.

If for New Yorkers, this place between 48th and 51st is the heart of Midtown, Correll Jones - known as CJ - is the true 'Mayor of the Rock’. It’s even written on his business card, just in case you don't believe it. CJ is 60 years old; he wears a gray suit and matching concierge hat. For twenty years, he has been a greeter for the thousands of people who visit the tree every day, cordoned off for security reasons. Every morning Mr. Jones takes the 45-minute train ride from Flatbush, Brooklyn, stands in front of the Rockefeller Center entrance, at number 30, and performs his role as "mayor” from 10 am to 6 pm.

The tourists don't know him, but for New Yorkers he's a celebrity. He appeared in a clip by ‘The Tonight Show’ host Jimmy Fallon and has shaken hands with two former US presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. 30 Rockefeller Plaza, in addition to being a hit television series (Rock 30), is a city within a city, with fourteen Art Deco buildings, including Radio City Music Hall, RCA radio studios and NBC television studios. CJ is the front man. If you want to make him happy, call him Mayor. “Once,” he says, “a candidate for mayor was doing an interview back here. In the end, I went up to him, gave him my business card and said: hey, it’s not an easy job being mayor.” And he bursts out laughing.

The lit tree, despite being about ninety years old, had not yet been born when it all began. “It was the workers at the Rockefeller Center construction site,” says Patricia Geremia, a New York blogger and lover of Florence. “It was 1931, the end of the Depression. The workers pooled their money and decided to buy a fir tree to put near the skyscraper under construction.”

One day he showed up at the construction site with a six-metre high fir tree. It was his way of saying: be happy, guys, we have a job in times of Depression

It was a balsam fir, the kind found in North America. It was brought one day by Cesidio Perruzza, born about fifty years earlier in San Donato Val di Comino, in the province of Frosinone. He arrived in the US in 1901 and lived in Brooklyn with his wife Gerarda. One day, he showed up at the construction site with a twenty-foot fir tree. It was his way of saying: be happy, guys! We've got jobs during the Depression. Perruzza was part of that team of Italian workers who, over the years, built literally by hand the district of Manhattan: not only the Rockefeller Center, but also the courthouse in Foley Square, the subway on Sixth Avenue, the first Madison Square Garden and the United Nations building.

Perruzza's wife and the wives of other Italian workers handcrafted the wreaths and gathered branches of cranberries to decorate the tree.

“Then,” writes Patricia in her blog, “the workers lined up next to the fir tree to receive their weekly wages.” Two years later, the Rockefeller Center decided to turn the idea of one Italian into an annual tradition. They chose a tree fifty feet tall. Three years later, they put up two trees to mark the new ice rink. During the Second World War, the tree decorations followed a patriotic theme, but in 1944 it was without lights because of the electricity rationing. At the end of the war, the tree was lit up at night with ultraviolet lights, to make it phosphorescent. In 1951, the tree lighting was filmed live on NBC. Then began the era of the giant fir trees full of color, the lights that guide you home every night, the luminous festive reference point of the city of steel. A show was created that would make it the most famous tree in the world.

Today, it is topped by a 400-kilogram Swaroski star with three million crystals. You see it and you say: this is the city I love. You see it and think: hello New York, you look great today! All very American, but it took an Italian to come up with the idea of placing a tree in the heart of Midtown. Someone capable of bringing warmth to a construction site, of declaring that this is the best time of the year. Someone with the intuition to alleviate the solitude of skyscrapers. When in doubt, Perruzza maintained, always spread a bit of sparkle.

Seguici su