On December 21, 1912, a 60-foot-tall tree arrived by horse-drawn truck from the Adirondacks to provide Manhattan’s Madison Square Park with the glow of 2,300 colored electric bulbs. The twinklers were donated by the Edison Company, and the tree was the first of its kind: Having a Christmas tree in one’s living room was a familiar custom, but a tree outside in a public park was something new.
The idea came for the tree came from Emilie D. Lee Herreshoff, the 49-year-old wife of a prominent chemical scientist. After witnessing a rise in social causes related to the city’s poor, she proposed the tree as a way to allow everyone, especially those who couldn’t afford a tree of their own, to participate in a lighting. The Mayor eventually approved the plan, and the Adirondack Club donated the tree, with transportation costs covered by an anonymous railroad worker.
The New York Times wrote of the new public display of holiday greenery, “It is hoped by those who have worked for it and hope to personify in it the great Christmas spirit that the placing of a great outdoor Christmas tree may become a national custom, taking the place in America of the older customs of older lands.”
A Christmas Eve celebration attracted 25,000 and became the country’s first public Christmas tree lighting. Visitors “stood a reverential audience, cheering the music and praising the idea of a public Christmas tree, but not once growing boisterous in the smallest degree,” wrote the Times on Christmas Day. The Star of Bethlehem was placed atop the tree while local choirs and bands performed holiday carols. At midnight, a performance of “America” ended the festivities and the lights were shut off. But they were illuminated every evening until New Year’s Eve.
The Star of Hope, via the NYC Parks Department
Called the “Tree of Light,” the Madison Square Park tree sparked a new trend. In 1913 alone, public Christmas trees popped up in Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Jersey City, and 50 more cities. And to commemorate the significance of this event, a permanent monument stands in present-day Madison Square Park. Called the Star of Hope, it’s a five-pointed star atop a 35-foot pole that was erected in 1916.