Rockefeller Center tree lighting kicks off holiday season

A 72-foot Norway spruce from upstate Wallkill was the centerpiece of Wednesday night's Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting.
A 72-foot Norway spruce from upstate Wallkill was the centerpiece of Wednesday night’s Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting. Photo Credit: Ben Hider

For many spectators Wednesday night, the Christmas tree lighting at Rockefeller Center was an iconic holiday event — even for those who had never seen it firsthand before.

“You grew up seeing it on TV, and it’s just as beautiful in person,” said Jesse Hess, 41, of Minnesota.

Hess was visiting New York City with two friends, and the tree lighting was high on their to-do list.

“This is a classical New York, American holiday celebration,” her friend Katie Holzerland, 56, said.

Hundreds of thousands of people braved chilly temperatures to attend the nationally televised ceremony on Wednesday night.

Revelers lined up as early as 2 p.m. to see the 72-foot-tall Norway spruce lit up with more than 50,000 multicolored LED lights and topped off with a 900-pound Swarovski crystal star.

The tree, which has roots in upstate Wallkill, was donated by New York City natives Lissette Gutierrez and her wife, Shirley Figueroa. The 75-year-old spruce, nicknamed Shelby, will be used to build homes for Habitat for Humanity after it is taken down.

“We couldn’t believe it was our tree that was chosen, but we’re very happy to share it with the world,” Gutierrez said.

Spectators were greeted with tight security. Backpacks were not permitted, and the NYPD K-9 unit sniffed bags as revelers lined up to enter Rockefeller Plaza.

Police said this week that NYPD counterterrorism cops also would be on the lookout for drones that might constitute a security threat.

But security was not a concern for visitors like Tony Ballah, 43, of Harlem, who recently moved back to Manhattan from Indiana with his wife. The couple saw the tree lighting for the first time Wednesday.

“There’s nothing like it. New York City is a world within a world … Christmas anywhere else is not Christmas,” he said as the lights from Saks Fifth Avenue flickered behind him.

More than 800,000 people are expected to visit the tree while it is on display through Jan. 7.

But the Radio City Rockettes, Diana Ross and John Legend performed here for only one night. And Ballah’s wife, Marjorie, wanted to witness the energy of the ceremony for herself.

“To see so many people here for this one thing is amazing,” she said. “This is what I want for Christmas.”