The craziest Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree ever, in 1949, caused an equally crazy Fifth Avenue traffic jam

For the 1949 season, the caretakers of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree decided to go fantastically over the top.

Just a few years earlier, New Yorkers were served up a plainly adorned tree with no electric lights, a reminder of the war in Europe and a nod to energy preservation.  But the war was over now; it was time to get delightfully gaudy.

Perhaps knowing the mild temperatures that awaited that season — it would only snow two inches between November 1949 and January 1950 — the Rockefeller Center holiday designers decided to spray paint the gigantic 75-foot tree in hundreds of gallons of whimsical silver paint.  It was then engulfed in 7,500 electric lights in pastel colors — pink, blue, yellow, green and orange, described as “plucked from a sky in fairyland.”

This Easter-like hue, bouncing off the silver-painted branches, reflected out from behind dozens of glass ornaments, leading up to the brilliant white star on top, which, according to the New York Times, “seemed to send glints of fire almost to the top of the seventy-seventh floor RCA Building in back of the tree.”

As if that didn’t grab your attention, the promenade leading up to the tree and the skating rink was adorned with a most dizzying decoration — rapidly whirling plastic snowflakes, 576 of them, illuminated for hypnotic effect.

At right: An ad for the Rockefeller Center ice skating pond, from a December 1949 issue of the New Yorker

Is it any surprise then that this insane display would later create, on December 19, 1949, “one of the worst traffic jams Fifth Avenue traffic jams in recent years“?

Due to shocked motorists trying to catch a glimpse at this electric wonderland, Fifth Avenue became a rush hour nightmare for several hours. “Cars were pinned bumper to bumper from 72nd south to 41st Street along Fifth Avenue, making cross-traffic an impossibility and imprisoning automobiles in side streets.”

Even through police were called out to enforce emergency traffic rules, Midtown was essentially in a state of vehicular trauma until 10 pm that evening.

Below: During the day, the silver-painted branches, adorned with heavy glass ornaments, cast a particular glow upon the ice skating pond below. Picture courtesy Flickr/lighthousenewsus

Picture courtesy Life Magazine/Andreas Feninger

  • Patty Turbes-Mohs

    I always loved Christmas in Manhattan! Thank heavens no one has recreated the tree you described – the precursor to all those wretched aluminum excesses of the ’50’s? I never failed to get my children down for the tree lighting, the most memorable one being in 1985. There was a larger than usual crowd as the weather was temporarily mild. We were somewhat blocked from crossing Fifth Ave. and 49th by the crowd. Of sudden we noticed an ambulance from St. Clare’s Hospital on the sidewalk trying to move West – sirens and lights at full tilt. By the time we finally got to 50th and 6th we had a vague sense that something unfortunate had happened- for Big Paulie Costallano had gone to his eternal reward while everyone was watching the tree lighting.

  • Anonymous

    wow that is very scary