The untold truth of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree

The lighting of the Christmas tree in New York City's Rockefeller Center has been a holiday tradition since 1933, but the origins of the tree itself go back two years earlier. In 1931, with the country in the grips of the Great Depression, Rockefeller Center employees decided they needed to spread a little holiday cheer. Together, they pooled their money to purchase a 20-foot balsam fir and decorated it with handmade garlands, per the Rockefeller Center website.

Two years later, lights were added to the tree, and the Rockefeller Center employees liked the lighting ceremony so much they decided to make it a yearly tradition. In 1942, the lighting ceremony was forced to undergo a brief intermission, due to World War II blackout regulations. Instead of stringing lights on one big tree, three smaller trees in the plaza were decorated with simple stars and red, white, and blue globes until the end of the war. The lighting resumed in 1945, and it has since become one of New York City's most iconic Christmas traditions.

This year's tree lighting will take place on December 2

Twenty years after its arrival in Rockefeller Plaza, the lighting ceremony became a televised event. In 1951, The Kate Smith Show aired the first special holiday broadcast of the annual tree lighting, according to 6sqft. By 1955, the ceremony had become so big that it required 20 workers and nine days to set up. Traditionally, the tree itself is donated — mostly by nurseries in the surrounding tri-state area — to Rockefeller Center, who in turn donates it as lumber after the tree is taken down in January. Erik Pauzé, the Head Gardener at Rockefeller Center, has been in charge of selecting the tree since 2009, per Travel and Leisure.

In 2007, organizers made the switch to LED bulbs, which reduced the tree's electricity usage by 1,200 kilowatts a day, per 6sqft. Its string of LED lights is now almost five miles long, and the Swarovski star that sits atop the tree weighs close to 900 pounds. The famous tree typically draws close to 125 million visitors annually.

This year's tree lighting will take place on December 2, although, like most things in 2020, it will be a little different than in years past. According to the Rockefeller Center website, public access to the event will not be permitted this year, but Christmas enthusiasts are invited to watch the lighting ceremony via a live national broadcast on NBC.

This year's tree had a passenger

Like all things 2020, it seems, this year's Rockefeller Center tree has its unique qualities. USA Today reports that this year's tree is a whopping 75 feet tall, a Norway spruce that was cut from the forests near Oneonta, in upstate New York, and donated by Al Dick of Daddy Al's General Store in Oneonta. The symbolism of the tree for the holiday season is perhaps more important for the public than in recent years, especially in light of the cancellation of so many annual events and traditions. Radio City's annual Christmas spectacular, a New York holiday staple, is among this year's casualties.

Some criticized this year's Rockefeller Center tree as "scraggly," but a spokeswoman for the Center, quoted by the Today Show, assured the public that the tree just needs to relax after its two-day trip. The branches are wrapped for transportation, and in time will rest into place, giving the tree the full features everyone enjoys. (Stand down, twitterverse.)

But an actual difference this year was a passenger. As they unwrapped the tree, workers discovered an adult Saw-whet owl. Another USA Today report explains that Saw-whets are among the tiniest owls in North America. Workers carefully took the owl (named, of course, Rockefeller) to a veterinarian. It was dehydrated and hungry, but otherwise checked out as healthy and unharmed, and will be released into the wild the weekend of November 20.