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11 Awe-Inspiring Facts About the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

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From its humble beginnings in 1931 to the glitz and glamor of today’s tree lightings, the towering Rockefeller Center evergreen has come to symbolize the holidays. Sure, it’s over the top to adorn a nearly 80-foot-tall tree with 45,000 lights—but this storied tradition has a surprisingly sweet side.

1. ROCKEFELLER CENTER’S VERY FIRST TREE WAS ACTUALLY A GRASSROOTS EFFORT.

Assume this monument to Christmas was cooked up by corporate execs in an effort to sell more toys? You could not be more wrong. The first-ever tree was erected in 1931 by a group of Depression-era construction workers who were hired to build the Rockefeller Center complex. The group decorated a 20-foot-tall spruce with paper garlands and tin cans, and lined up beside it on Christmas Eve to get their paychecks.

2. TWO YEARS LATER, THEY MADE IT OFFICIAL.

The construction of this opulent new tower, the biggest private building project in New York City at that time, became a beacon of hope in the early years of the Great Depression. So for Christmas 1933, the first holiday after Rock Center (then called the RCA Building) was completed, the company arranged an official tree-lighting ceremony. A 40-foot-tall tree was strung up with 700 electric lights, and the shebang was broadcast to the nation … on NBC Radio.

3. WITH A FEW EXCEPTIONS, THE TREE’S ALWAYS BEEN TRICKED OUT WITH MULTI-COLORED LIGHTS.

In 1942, instead of a single tree, three trees were erected in the plaza—one was trimmed in red, one in white, and one in blue to honor World War II troops. The trees were never lit, due to wartime blackout rules; ditto the following two years.

4. AS THE TRADITION GREW, THE JOB OF FINDING THE TREE BECAME A YEAR-ROUND PURSUIT.

David P. Murbach, manager of the gardens division of Rockefeller Center, was in charge of finding the tree for nearly three decades before his death in 2010. He searched all year long, often renting helicopters to explore surrounding states and search for the perfect specimen. “You want personality: there’s density, a height and a width that we need,” he once said. “But some trees have a way of holding their branches. I don’t know what else to call it but character.” 

5. THE TASK OF TRANSPORTING IT WILL BLOW YOUR MIND.

Over the years, the firs have come from Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, even Canada. (The tallest to date: A 100-foot tree from Killingworth, Connecticut, which went up in Rockefeller Center in 1999.) After it's chopped down, most trees are driven through the streets of Manhattan on a custom-built trailer; others are floated on a barge down the Hudson River. In 1998, when the 74-foot-tall Norway spruce needed a ride from Richfield, Ohio, it was actually flown in on an Antonov An-124 Ruslan, the world’s largest cargo plane.

6. ITS STAR IS MADE OF SHATTERPROOF GLASS—AND LOTS OF CRYSTALS.

It wouldn't be Christmas without a little bling: The tree-topper's rays are made of shatterproof glass—the same kind used in New York City's skyscrapers—and adorned with 25,000 Swarovski crystals. The star, which measures nearly 9.5 feet wide and weighs 550 pounds, first adorned the tree in 2004.

7. THE TREE GOT A MAJOR UPGRADE FOR ENERGY EFFICIENCY IN 2007.

Stringing a giant evergreen with lights—which are illuminated for more than a month—was never a great move for the environment. So eight years ago, the incandescent bulbs were replaced with LED lights, a move that saved 1200 kwH per day. To put that in perspective: It’s estimated that a family in a 2000-square-foot home would use 1200 kwH to power their household for an entire month. Solar panels, stationed on top a building in Rockefeller Center, power the LEDs. This year's tree will be strung with 45,000 lights on 5 miles of wire.

8. TREES CAN BE NOMINATED BY THEIR OWNERS.

While the search for the perfect tree is ongoing, individuals can also submit their own trees for consideration—and that's how the 2015 Rock Center Christmas tree was found.

Back in the spring, Albert Asendorf of Gardiner, New York, sent in photos of his 78-foot spruce, the centerpiece of the family’s front yard for more than 50 years. Asendorf and his partner, Nancy Puchalski, were worried that the oversized tree would fall onto the house. “It was almost a goner,” Asendorf told CBS. “We were just going to cut it up and get rid of it somehow, use it for firewood.” But that call would have been a tough one to make—the tree had stood in the yard since Asendorf’s father bought the place in 1957, and three generations of the family had played in its branches. So instead of cutting it down, they submitted the tree on a whim.

After the submission caught his eye, today’s head gardener, Erik Pauze, visited Asendorf’s tree and climbed nearly to the top to check things out. “It had a great shape, nice branches, and when I came up and looked for it, the sun was shining right on it so it made it even more glorious,” Pauze told CBS. It was officially chosen in October.

9. THE 2015 SPRUCE GOT THE VIP TREATMENT.

After Pauze made the official selection, the tree got some special attention. Pauze came back to see the tree—fertilizing it and watering it with 1800 gallons a visit—once a week. After the tree removal crew started tying up branches for transport, an armed police officer was stationed in the yard. Nearly 150 locals came to the Asendorf’s yard to watch the tree be cut down in early November.

10. IT'S SEEN BY MILLIONS.

According to the Rockefeller Center website, more than half a million people walk by the tree—stationed between West 48th and 51st streets and Fifth and Sixth Avenues—every day, starting from when it's erected in late November to when it comes down in early January. Thousands will gather in person to watch the official tree-lighting ceremony on December 2, and millions more will tune in from home.

11. WHEN THE HOLIDAY IS OVER, THE TREE KEEPS ON GIVING BACK.

Once the season wraps, Tishman Speyer (the company that operates Rockefeller Center) donates the tree to Habitat for Humanity. The tradition started in 2007, and since then, each tree has been milled and made into lumber to build homes across the country. Children’s book author David Rubel pays tribute to the process in The Carpenter’s Gift, a story about a Depression Era boy wishing for a home for his family. The parts of the tree that can't turned into lumber aren't wasted; they're turned into commemorative paper bookplates that go inside The Carpenter’s Gift.

All photos courtesy of Getty Images.

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9 Common Misperceptions About Religious Observances
A view of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on the first Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on May 18, 2018.
A view of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on the first Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on May 18, 2018.
AHMAD GHARABLI, AFP/Getty Images

Religion can be confusing. Not only do many religions have similar philosophies and holidays, for many of the world's most widely practiced religions, the details for observing certain holidays or rites can differ based on location, denomination, or modernization. And for those who are less familiar with a particular religion, the details can be easy to overlook. From Ramadan to Advent to Bathing the Buddha, we break down nine common misconceptions surrounding popular religious observances.

1. WHAT'S WRONG: RAMADAN IS A HOLIDAY.

A Muslim man reads from the Koran at a Mosque in Nairobi on May 17, 2018 during the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
SIMON MAINA, AFP/Getty Images

"In American thinking, we think of [Ramadan] as a holiday because that's the way we associate important religious dates as holidays," Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, told NPR. "It's not a holiday in the sense that life goes on. The last day of the holy month, which is Eid ul-Fitr, is a holiday and there are periods in between that are holidays. But as a whole, it's not a holiday."

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar (which is a lunar calendar, which explains why the date moves in relation to the Gregorian calendar). It's significant because the Qur'an was first revealed, and the gates of Heaven are opened and the gates of Hell are closed, during this time.

Lailat al Qadr is the actual night of the revelation of the Qur'an, and praying on that night is said to be "better than a thousand months." But no one knows what night it actually was, only that it was probably in the last 10 days of the month. As such, the last 10 days of Ramadan are generally treated as special days.

The main holiday associated with Ramadan is Eid al-Fitr (or Eid ul-Fitr), which marks the end of the month and the end of fasting.

2. WHAT'S WRONG: THE RAMADAN FAST IS ALL ABOUT NOT EATING.

A Muslim family sits around an iftar meal during the month of Ramadan in a park outside a mosque in Turkey.
A Muslim family sits around an iftar meal during the month of Ramadan in a park outside a mosque in Diyabakir, Turkey
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In the West, much of the attention is focused on how, for the month of Ramadan, Muslims don't eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. But that's only part of the story—Muslims are also supposed to abstain from sex, fighting, smoking, bad thoughts, and sometimes even TV during the time of the fast. According to Nasr, "It's a period of spiritual reflection," of which not eating is a part.

But not all Muslims abstain from eating during Ramadan. Some Ismaili Muslims abstain from eating on only a handful of days throughout the year, and during Ramadan focus instead on those other forms of fasting.

3. WHAT'S WRONG: THE RAMADAN FAST IS ALWAYS FROM SUNRISE TO SUNSET.

The suun setting over mountains.
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The majority of the time, this is true. But for Muslim communities in the far north, fasting from sunrise to sunset can be a problem—in the summer, the sun might not set for days or weeks, and in the winter the sun may never rise. Some tough it out, while others follow the time of the nearest major city, nearest Muslim country, or Mecca.

4. WHAT'S WRONG: ADVENT STARTS ON DECEMBER 1.

A child pulls a drawer out of an advent calendar.
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Virtually all the Advent calendars available in the market start on December 1, but this is only rarely correct. Advent actually starts on the Sunday nearest the Feast of St. Andrew, which is November 30. It's believe that the misconception can be traced back to a German man named Gerhard Lang. Lang, inspired by the Advent calendars his mother made him as a boy, began mass producing the calendars in the early 20th century; he eventually decided to standardize the calendar as starting at December 1.

5. WHAT'S WRONG: LENT IS THE 40 DAYS BETWEEN ASH WEDNESDAY AND EASTER.

A palm cross in a dish of ashes on top of a green palm leaf.
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According to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, "Strictly speaking, Lent ends with the beginning of the Triduum on Holy Thursday. The Ordo [the official book that details such issues] notes: 'Lent runs from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord's Supper exclusive on Holy Thursday.'" [PDF]

The change to Holy Thursday only dates to the 1960s and is only true for Roman Catholics (who point out that a distinction is made between liturgical Lent and the Lenten fast), but even among other Western churches the definition of Lent being the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter isn't quite right. There are actually 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter (not including Easter, as traditionally Lent ended on Easter Saturday). The other six days are on Sundays, when fasting is forbidden.

6. WHAT'S WRONG: THE HAJJ IS THE WORLD'S LARGEST RELIGIOUS GATHERING.

The Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
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Every year in the 12th month of the Islamic calendar, 2 to 3 million Muslims gather for the Hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca. Despite that number, it is not the largest religious gathering in the world. Kumbh Mela brings Hindus together every three years at one of four alternating sites, with the main Kumbh Mela occurring in Allahabad; In 2013, it counted approximately 120 million people. According to the BBC, the story of Kumbh Mela is that gods and demons fought over a pitcher of nectar and a few drops fell on each of the four cities that now host the festival, and during the festival the water becomes the nectar.

7. WHAT'S WRONG: BATHING THE BUDDHA IS A UNIVERSAL CELEBRATION.

An Indonesian Buddhist bathes the Buddha statue during a Vesak ceremony in Mojokerto, Indonesia.
Robertus Pudyanto, Getty Images

One of the most well-known Buddhist celebrations in the West is Vesak (or Wesak), and one of the most well-known components of the day is Bathing the Buddha, where water gets poured over the Buddha to purify the mind.

But in reality the day is more complex than that. Vesak is a day that commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha in Theravada Buddhism. But Mahayana Buddhists view these three events as happening at three separate times, with only the Buddha's birthday occurring the same time as Vesak. In modern Western cities that have multiple Buddhist groups, the Mahayana tradition of Bathing the Buddha often gets combined with the Theravada celebration of Vesak, so much so that one Theravada Buddhist writing for the Huffington Post noted that he had never even heard of the Bathing the Buddha tradition as part of Vesak before college.

8. WHAT'S WRONG: RELIGIOUS OBSERVANCES ARE ALWAYS SPECIFIC TO THE RELIGION.

A Muslim man reads from the Koran at a Mosque in Nairobi on May 17, 2018 during the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
SIMON MAINA, AFP/Getty Images

While most of the time a religious holiday is exclusive to its religion, there are certain festivities that span across religions. The Muslim day of Ashura originated when Mohammed arrived in Medina and saw the Jews fasting in honor of Moses. Mohammed then ordered a fast as well. Today, scholars debate whether the Jews of Medina were celebrating Passover or Yom Kippur, but Ashura was originally based on a Jewish holy day.

9. WHAT'S WRONG: ALL MEMBERS OF A RELIGION CELEBRATE THE SAME HOLIDAYS.

Four burning candles for Diwali.
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Just as some holidays can spread across multiple religions, some holidays are not universally followed within the religion. Quakers, which are a denomination of Protestant Christians, have traditionally not celebrated Christmas or Easter because they consider every day a holy day. Traditionally, the people of Kerala in the south of India don't view Diwali as a major celebration, for reasons that are debated. And on the flip side, groups within a religion often have their own holidays, such as the Old Believers (a group of Eastern Orthodox Christians who split from the main branch) who celebrate holidays such as the Transfer of the Relics of St. Nicholas, commemorating the movement of the relics from Turkey to Italy.

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10 Other Mother’s Days from Around the World
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After her mother passed away in 1905, Anna Jarvis resolved to dedicate a day to her mother, and mothers everywhere. Little did she know, and evidently much to her chagrin, Mother’s Day fast became a commercial phenomenon. Its popularity spread worldwide and many countries, particularly in the Western world, adopted the second Sunday in May as their official Mother’s Day. But not every nation followed suit—perhaps to the chagrin of their local flower companies. In fact, Mother’s Day in many countries has little or nothing to do with Anna Jarvis’s creation, nor does it always occur in May. These are just a few of those other Mother’s Days.

1. UK // MOTHERING SUNDAY, FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT

The name may sound strikingly similar to its American counterpart, but the origins of Mothering Sunday are quite different. By most historical accounts, it was the Church of England that created Mothering Sunday to honor the mothers of England, and later to commemorate the “Mother Church” in all its spiritual nurturing glory. Hundreds of years ago, Christians were expected to make at least one return to their mother church each year. In other words, Mothering Sunday was the ultimate guilt trip to visit the woman or entity that gave them life. Was that so much to ask? The fourth Sunday of Lent became the designated day to make this journey, and remains the go-to holiday to celebrate Moms to this day.

2. THAILAND // MOTHER'S DAY, AUGUST 12

Her Majesty Sirikit the Queen of Thailand is also considered the mother of all her Thai subjects. In light of her royal maternal status, the Thai government made her birthday, August 12, Thailand’s official Mother’s Day in 1976. It remains a national holiday, celebrated countrywide with fireworks and candle-lighting. In related holidays, Father’s Day in Thailand falls on the current King’s birthday, December 5.

3. BOLIVIA // MOTHER'S DAY, MAY 27

During the struggle for independence from Spain in the early 19th century, many of the country's fathers, sons, and husbands were injured and killed on the battlefields. As the history is told to Bolivian students, one group of women from Cochabamba refused to stand idly by; on May 27, they banded together to fight the Spanish Army on Coronilla Hill. Though hundreds died in battle, the legacy of their contributions lives on thanks to a national law passed in the 1920s making the day on which the “Heroinas of Coronilla” took to the streets national Mother’s Day.

4. INDONESIA// MOTHER'S DAY OR WOMEN'S DAY, DECEMBER 22

Made official in 1953 by its president, Indonesia's Mother’s Day falls on the anniversary of the First Indonesian Women’s Congress (1928). The first convening of women in a governmental body is still considered pivotal in launching organized women’s movements throughout Indonesia. The holiday was created to celebrate the contributions of women to Indonesian society.

5. MIDDLE EAST (VARIOUS) // MOTHER'S DAY OR SPRING EQUINOX, MARCH 21

Egyptian journalist Mustafa Amin introduced the idea of a Mother’s Day to his home country, and it quickly spread throughout much of the region. Inspired by a story of a thankless widow ignored by an ungrateful son, Amin and his brother Ali successfully proposed a day in Egypt to honor all mothers. They decided the first day of spring, March 21, was most appropriate to celebrate the ultimate givers of life. It was first celebrated in Egypt in 1956, and is still observed throughout the region from Bahrain to the United Arab Emirates to Iraq.

6. NEPAL // MOTHER PILGRIMAGE FORTNIGHT OR MATA TIRTHA SNAN, LAST DAY OF THE MAISHAKH MONTH (USUALLY BETWEEN LATE APRIL AND EARLY MAY)

Stemming from an ancient Hindu tradition, this festival of honoring mothers is still commonly celebrated in Nepal. The holiday honors both the living and the dead equally. Traditionally, those honoring mothers who have passed away make a pilgrimage to the Mata Tirtha ponds near Kathmandu. A large carnival is also held in the Mata Tirtha village. Children show their mothers appreciation with sweets and gifts.

7. ISRAEL // FAMILY DAY OR THE HOLIDAY FORMERLY KNOWN AS MOTHER'S DAY, 30TH DAY OF SHEVAT (USUALLY FEBRUARY)

Henrietta Szold never had any children of her own, but that didn’t stop her from touching the lives of many young ones. Szold played an active role in the Youth Aliya organization, through which she helped protect many Jewish children from the horrors of the Holocaust. This earned her a reputation as the “mother” of all children. In the 1950s, an 11-year-old girl named Nechama Biedermann wrote to the children’s publication Haaretz Shelanu proposing they make the date of Szold’s death Israel’s national Mother’s Day. The newspaper readily agreed, as did the rest of the country. Despite the shift to a more gender-balanced Family Day, the holiday’s popularity has waned over the years.

8. ETHIOPIA // MOTHER'S DAY OR ANTROSHT, WHEN THE RAINY SEASON ENDS (OCTOBER/NOVEMBER)

Rather than tying themselves down to a specific date, Ethiopians wait out the wet season then trek home for a large, three-day family celebration. This feast is known as “Antrosht.” Unlike some western Mother’s Days, the mother plays a key role in preparing the traditional meals for the festival.

9. FRANCE // MOTHER'S DAY OR FÊTE DES MÈRES, LAST SUNDAY IN MAY

Celebrating a few Sundays later than the rest of the world feels so, well, French. However, according to one blogger, they may have beat all of us to the punch—sort of. France has a storied history of attempts to create a national Mother’s Day. Napoleon tried to mandate a national maternal holiday at the turn of the 19th century. But things ended up not working out so well for him and his holiday. More than a century later, Lyon held its own Mother’s Day celebration to honor women who lost sons to the First World War. It was not until May 24, 1950 that the Fête des Mères became an officially decreed holiday.

(The holiday is mandated to occur on the last Sunday in May. However, if that Sunday is also the Pentecost, then Mother’s Day is pushed to the first Sunday in June.)

10. NICARAGUA // MOTHER'S DAY OR DÍA DE MADRE, MAY 30

In the 1940s, President General Anastasio Somoza Garcia declared Mother’s Day in honor of the birthday of his mother-in-law. Despite its brown-nosing origins, it remains a big deal in Nicaragua.

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