Before there were any buildings in Rockefeller Center, there was a Christmas tree.
At the peak of the Great Depression, construction workers hungering for holiday cheer pooled their money to buy a 20-foot balsam fir and placed it in the center of the construction site. They decorated the tree with whatever they could find: strings of cranberry their wives made, paper garlands, tin cans, even foil gum wrappers.
The men lined up at the tree to receive their paychecks. Their spirits were buoyed—and, unbeknownst to them, a tradition was born. Ninety years later, it endures.
Each tree brings a story. In 1951, it drew national attention when NBC televised the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree lighting for the first time. In 1969, it was given 12 metal wire angels made by an immigrant woman. After the Sept. 11 attacks, it was adorned in red, white and blue.
Last year it carried a tiny owl from upstate New York on a 170-mile ride to New York City. The stowaway was named Rocky, short for Rockefeller, wrapped in an orange blanket and nursed by veterinarians before being released. In the process, she became an internet sensation and the subject of a new children’s book, “The Christmas Owl.”
This year the Rockefeller tree makes history as the first one from Maryland. The 79-foot Norway Spruce was wrapped with more than 50,000 multi-colored lights on five miles of wire and then topped with a 900-pound Swarovski star.
But my favorite part of the story is what happens when the star is removed and the lights are unplugged. When Christmas ends, the tree’s story is just beginning. Its trunk is milled into two-by-fours and used by Habit for Humanity to build a house. The one-time Christmas icon becomes a forever home.
This speaks to me as a Catholic surrounded by sacramental—physical objects that take on spiritual significance. They are blessed by prayer and priests and patterns. Rosary beads handled every morning. Candles burning at night. Medals dangling from the neck. And at the source and summit of our faith, bread and wine consecrated.
Sacramentals are hopeful. They see not just what is but what can be. They reflect Jesus’ promise: “Behold, I make all things new.” They assure us that, like the Christmas tree hauled out of Rockefeller Center, we can make of ourselves something beautiful, something lasting. Our weary bones can become a home.
Sacramentals offer a special kind of comfort in hard times, and we are marking the end of another hard year. A year of darkness and division. A year of resignations and aimlessness. A year of uncertainty. We can relate to those construction workers back in 1931 who fashioned a dreary construction site into a Christmas scene.
Yesterday I chatted with a Catholic dad who heads to the same Christmas tree farm my family visits each December. He joked about how long the tree remains perched in their house—weeks after Christmas, until his wife finally declares, “Enough!”
Then he sticks the tree in a snowbank in his yard until it’s warm enough for a bonfire.
“It’s quite fun to put a dry pine tree on fire because it crackles and explodes,” he said. “I think about the sacramentality, the resurrection of this tree: There’s this thing that has a new purpose.”
Maybe you’re feeling used up and dried out, like an old Christmas tree stuck in the snow. Maybe God is preparing your next chapter. Maybe 2022 will be your year, when people watch you and say, “There’s someone who has a new purpose.”
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn.