Rootless for the Holidays

In my early 20s, I worked for a tree care company as a climber and spent many happy hours pruning in upper branches. The company was often hired by homeowners to remove trees to open up a view or make way for a pool or driveway.

If the tree was healthy, we always suggested transplanting it, rather than cutting it down. A tree cut down is gone forever, but if you replant it, it can keep growing beautifully for years. Ever since I experienced the deep satisfaction of moving trees and seeing them survive, the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tradition has baffled me.

Each year at this time I wonder why we don’t celebrate Christmas with a living tree in the plaza in Midtown Manhattan — one that can be replanted and live on long after the holiday. This year’s specimen, a 10-ton, 76-foot-high Norway spruce that will be lighted (with energy-saving L.E.D. lights) on Wednesday, was cut and removed from a yard in Easton, Conn.

The 72-foot-high evergreen chosen last year, another Norway spruce, was taken from the property of the late Mary Kremper and Joseph Varanyak in Hamilton, N.J. The couple planted it in 1931 — the year the very first Christmas tree adorned Rockefeller Center. At that time the center was still under construction (the annual tradition wouldn’t officially start until the complex opened two years later), but the workers on the site received their Christmas Eve paychecks in front of a freshly cut 20-foot balsam decorated with tin cans and garlands.

In the Depression years, the tree was a bright spot in the city, and people came from all over to admire it. But when WWII started, Americans began to rethink how they did everything, including the Rockefeller Center Christmas celebration. In 1942, the center decided for the first time to bring in three living trees — the tallest measured 50 feet — rather than one massive cut specimen. After the holiday, the spruces were replanted on the Long Island estates they came from. And for the next few years, the center continued to celebrate with live trees. The year the war ended, it had a 55-foot spruce with a root ball 11 feet in diameter transported to Manhattan.

By 1946, priorities had changed again: it became more important to have a large tree than a living one. The 1948 specimen was a towering 90-foot-high spruce from Mount Kisco, N.Y., the tallest to grace the plaza thus far. Since then, Rockefeller Plaza has routinely displayed cut trees, including a 100-foot-high Norway spruce in 1999.

It is not necessary to separate a tree from its roots to deliver it safely to Manhattan. True, it is logistically harder and more expensive to transport live trees because the branches can’t be bound as tightly and the roots take up more room. But experts often move wonderful specimens, and if we could do it in the 1940s, we can do it today. A live Rockefeller Plaza tree would probably have to be smaller than the soaring cut trees annually erected there. But why — I wonder year after year — does the height of the tree matter more to us than its survival?

Imagine a majestic tree, its root ball a dozen feet or more in diameter, traveling on the Hudson River by barge (the most unrestrictive mode of transportation) to 42nd Street. It’s a short journey east from the river’s edge to Sixth Avenue and six blocks north to 48th Street — and from there only a half-block to Rockefeller Plaza. A power line or two would need to be negotiated and traffic lights would have to be swung out of the way, but before long that proud evergreen would be home for the holidays. And after the winter’s festivities, the tree that gave the city so much could return to the earth to live for many Christmases to come.

John Duvall, a documentary sound recordist.