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The Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center: An Italian Tradition Illuminating New York

The Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center is a shining icon that has illuminated the heart of New York for decades, but few are familiar with its fascinating story of tradition, emigration, and an Italian touch.

This is the story of Cesidio Perruzza, the Italian who, during a time of deep poverty and crisis like the Great Depression, brought a glimmer of hope to our days.

It attracts millions of visitors worldwide every year, likely being the most famous Christmas tree globally, but how many truly know its origins?

Cesidio Perruzza and the Italian Emigration of the 19th Century

Let’s go back to San Donato Val di Comino, where Cesidio Perruzza was born in 1882. In a context of extreme poverty and uncertainty following Italy’s unification in 1861, at the age of 19, he sought greater opportunities abroad, like millions of other Italians.

Christmas tree in New york
Christmas at Rockefeller Center in 1955, the tree was 26 meters tall

Our protagonist was part of the first wave of migration to the United States, known as the Great Emigration due to its scale, historically spanning from 1861 to the rise of fascism.

Taking a step back in Italian history, we can identify three major periods of emigration to the United States. Only considering the first and second periods (roughly from the end of World War II to the 1970s), it is estimated that about 18.7 million Italians left the country, never to return. Cesidio, among them, initiated the Christmas tree tradition at Rockefeller.

The Christmas Tree to Illuminate the American Great Depression

In 1931, Cesidio arrived at his workplace (the construction site of the Rockefeller Center) with a 6-meter balsam fir. A humble yet meaningful gesture for him, signifying the embrace of Christmas and the courage to celebrate during challenging times. An unexpected move, especially given the prevailing circumstances. It was 1931, two Christmases had passed since the fateful October 24, 1929, and the city was in a condition of extreme precariousness. Despite the adversity, it marked the beginning of a lasting tradition.

Christmas tree in New york
Workers in line on payday, 1931|Credit Pic: Wikimedia Commons

From Chewing Gum Wrappers to Elegance: The Evolution of Tradition

Cesidio Perruzza’s positivity and kindness were not in vain. The wives of the workers adorned the tree with garlands, ornaments, and factory scraps. That day marked the start of a long and prestigious tradition that continues to this day, albeit with a slightly different spirit, perhaps.

Steve Elling, his nephew, recounted that they used chewing gum wrappers and foil from dynamite sticks as ornaments. Not too long ago, people came close to forgetting this beautiful story of tradition and hope… A famous interview with Steve Elling in The New York Times shared anecdotes and curiosities about the initiative and authenticity of his grandfather.

Christmas tree in New york
The Christmas of 1999 boasted the largest tree in the history of the Rockefeller Center, until 2015, with its 31-meter height

The Rockefeller Center embraced the idea, increasing the stakes each year. The tree chosen for the Christmas of 1932 was 13 meters tall, and soon, within a few years, a simple cry of hope and positivity became a national symbol.

Today, the inauguration ceremony is eagerly awaited by millions of spectators and is indispensable for New Yorkers. As the caretakers meticulously select the trees, not all qualify to become the world’s most famous Christmas tree. A significant step forward, considering the first 6-meter fir adorned with foil paper. I wonder if Cesidio Perruzza, had he been told the end of this story, would have ever believed it…

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