O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, Your branches green delight us. They’re green when summer days are bright: They’re green when winter snow is white. O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, Your branches green delight us.
—English translation of the German Christmas carol O Tannenbaum, 1824 by Ernst Anschütz (1780–1861)
North side of the Washington Arch faces Fifth Avenue. The Arch was designed by Stanford White.
With its Midtown location amid the glamorous stores and hotels, and soaring skyscrapers of Fifth Avenue, it is not surprising that the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree garners the lion’s share of attention. The tradition of raising a Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center began in 1931. The complex of Art Deco-styled buildings was still a work-in-progress when Depression-era construction workers erected a 20-foot tall balsam tree; they decorated it with paper garlands, strings of cranberries, and a few ornaments on December 24th. The workers collected their paychecks beside the tree.
Mr. White based his design on the A.D. 70 Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum.
“Thousands of lights were burning on the green branches, and gaily-colored pictures, such as she had seen in the shop-windows, looked down upon her. The little maiden stretched out her hands towards them when—the match went out. The lights of the Christmas tree rose higher and higher, she saw them now as stars in heaven . . .”
—from The Little Match Girl, 1845
by Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875)
The sculpture “Washington at Peace,” by Stirling Calder, can be seen in the background.
Yet in Olde Greenwich Village, where things are quiet and relaxed in this residential neighborhood, we have an older tradition. Our Christmas tree in Washington Square Park was put up in the front of the Washington Arch at a tree lighting ceremony in 1924. Our Greenwich Village Christmas tree tradition is seven years older than that of Rockefeller Center! At the start of Fifth Avenue, a delightful sight greets residents and guests alike: a stately Christmas tree!
Frederick Macneil’s sculpture “Washington at War” stands in the background.
“I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree. The tree was planted in the middle of a great round table, and towered high above their heads. It was brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers; and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects.”
—from A Christmas Tree, a short story
by Charles Dickens (1812–1870)
The south-facing side of the Arch looks into the Park.
That tree of 1924 was a live one; and only five days later it was planted in Washington Square Park. No one knows where it was planted, or if it is still standing. Also, the lyrics to Christmas carols, meant to encourage a sing along, were projected onto the Arch at the tree-lighting ceremony. Amber, red and green lights, totaling 1,500 incandescent bulbs decorated that tree. Carols are still sung at the Christmas tree on the 24th; instead of projected lyrics on the Arch, songbooks are distributed for carolers to sing along.
The Arch was built in 1890 to 1892 and dedicated in 1895.
This year’s Washington Square Park Christmas Tree is pictured here, framed by the luminous glory of the Washington Arch. See Washington Square Park and many other Greenwich Village sights—famous, infamous and in between—when you take our Greenwich Village Walking Tour. This, or any of our tours, makes a unique gift: history, art and fun rolled into one. And one size fits all!
“The Christmas spirit that goes out with the dried-up Christmas tree is just as worthless” —Anonymous