Merry Centennial: Madison Square Park Celebrates Nation’s Oldest Tree Lighting Ceremony Tonight

The Madison Square tree through the years.

The Madison Square tree through the years. (MSP Conservancy)

The season of light takes on special meaning in a city as bright as New York. It all starts with the lighting of the world’s most famous Christmas tree at Rock Center and closes with the ball drop in the fleshpit of Times Square on New Years.

The tree in Madison Square Park may be overlooked, with all the storefronts to be taken in, holiday fares to wade through and ice rinks popping up all over, but it was here that the season of light arguably began 100 years ago. That is when the first public tree lighting ceremony ever took place, not just in New York, but in the country, based on research by the Madison Square Park Conservancy.

“We’ve been waiting for this moment a long time,” said Debra Landau, director of the conservancy.

The park group points to numerous resources confirming the centennial, and its apparent first-in-the-nation status. There is a mention in the 1912 annual Parks Department report, on a list of notable events, right between the Oct. 16 “Celebration at the Gant Tulip tree in Inwood Park” and the Dec. 27 carnival at something called Wendel’s Assembly Rooms on West 44th Street. Miriam Berman cites this as the nation’s first public tree lighting in her book Madison Square, as does the Times, which took special note of the event on its front page the day of, Dec. 24, 1912. “Star of Bethlehem First Light on Tree,” reads the headline, and the story opens,

Let all the people who visit the big Christmas tree in Madison Square Park to-night watch for the appearance of the Star of the East–the Star of Bethlehem. With the first call of the trumpets it will appear, faintly shining, at the top of the tree. As the sound of the “Parsifal Call” continues, with the crescendo, the star will gradually increase in radiance until it shines brilliantly, and then the entire tree will blossom luminously with many colored lights.

So all those garish displays in Bay Ridge and throughout the nation’s other suburbias, basically we have this lighting to thank.

But it should come as no surprise that this was such a remarkable occasion, this being not only a celebration of the holidays but of light itself. Few New Yorkers yet had the succor of electrical illumination at home, and some sources say Thomas Edison was directly involved in the lighting of the first Madison Square Park tree.

Ms. Landau said it is easy to see why this location had been selected. “We pride ourselves on being home to a lot of firsts,” she said, including the city’s tallest buildings (Flatiron and MetLife buildings, for a time), biggest sports venues (the original Madison Square Gardens) earliest hotels (The Fifth Avenue, most notably) and starting point for military marches, which departed from the old Dewey Arch, the predecessor to Washington’s, a temporary structure often assembled at 21st Street and Fifth Avenue for such affairs. “The park used to be the heart of the city,” Ms. Landau added.

And  even if it is no longer, if the this tree has been eclipsed by the Rockefellers, who celebrated their 80th tree lighting this year, Ms. Landau sees that as fitting as well. “It shows the natural progression of the city northward,” she said.

The tree lighting begins today at 4:30, with a special ceremony marking the centennial. As usual, the New York Life choir will be on caroling duties, reprising the same role the volunteer singers have for years.

“When the band reaches its final number everyone is asked to join in the singing of ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee,’” the Times noted 100 years ago. While the tree lighting will be the same this year, the program, thankfully, will not. Instead, the conservancy has booked Audra Rox. “It’s hip caroling in hip clothing,” Ms. Landau said.

If only Shake Shack was carrying an Egg Nog shake. Unfotunately, that custard was on the menu yesterday, not today.