The History Behind New York City's Most Iconic Holiday Decorations


Visitors descend on New York City during the holidays to eat highly suspicious roasted chestnuts from food carts, take in the holiday storefronts along Fifth Avenue, and see some of the most iconic decorations in North America in and along Rockefeller Center.

Between Thanksgiving weekend and New Years Eve, you can view a slew of bigger-than-life-sized art exhibits simply by walking up Avenue of the Americas between 48th and 52nd Streets. The tradition started during the Depression and became solidified as an annual event in 1933 when the plaza at 30 Rock first opened. Since then, an array of decorations have been added to the plaza and now bleed out to the rest of the buildings in the Rockefeller Group, running along Sixth Ave. Some of the works out this year have been on display for decades, finding themselves the background scenery in movies and TV shows, while others are relatively new additions.

1221 Ave of the Americas: The MacGraw-Hill Building LED Holiday Lights

This larger-than-life-sized decoration was conceived by American Christmas CEO Fred Schwam and CCO Kent Fritzel. It is a reimagining and greened-up version of the old C9 outdoor holiday lights the duo designed that were on display at 1271 Ave of the Americas, the Time/Life building, starting back in 1997. Schwarm says that the “a-ha” moment in designing the original came when he and Fritzel looked over a set of C9 lights, your traditional oval-shaped outdoor holiday lights, and thought to themselves, “What if that were the display design?” After the original was retired in the mid-2000s, the MacGraw-Hill Building commissioned a new display that was in line their new green building initiative. The new LED light design debuted in 2009.

1251 Avenue of the Americas: Formerly The Exxon Building Fountain of Ornaments

This oldie but goodie has been on display since 1993. The steel-reinforced fiberglass balls with chrome-finished caps and hooks require a complete draining of the fountain in front of 1251 for their installation — usually just before Thanksgiving weekend.

They were designed by Stephen Stefan of the Dallas-based company Venue Arts, who says he was inspired by the work of sculptor Claes Oldenburg. Oldenburg was known for his rendering of everyday objects on a large scale in public places.

1271 Avenue of the Americas: The Time/Life Building Toy Train in the Fountain

Another relative newcomer to the Avenue of the Americas holiday display, this train set took over for the C9 holiday lights display that used to occupy the prime space in the Time/Life building’s fountain back in 2009.

The train was also created by the team at American Christmas, who wanted to be careful not to repeat any other designs on display in the neighborhood. They were searching for a big idea to replace the previous display and decided to make an icon out of the kiddie toy train that is traditionally be found under so many Christmas trees.

Rockefeller Center Cadets

These guys have been standing watch over tourists and New Yorkers who pilgrimage to Rock Center to check out the holiday decorations since 1983. Also designed by Stephen Stefano, they were inspired by the designs of Norman Rockwell, to evoke an Americana sense of Christmas.

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

As most New Yorkers know, each year the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is chosen from the area, but this year’s tree is a special Norway spruce from Mount Olive, NJ that survived Superstorm Sandy. It wasn’t on the submitted list, but Rockefeller Center head gardener Erik Pauze spotted it when he got lost heading back to NYC after a tree hunting trip. This year, the tree is covered in 30,000 LED lights and topped with a Swarovski star.

The tradition of lighting a Christmas tree in Rock Center has been going strong since 1931. This year’s tree will be up and viewable by the public until January 7.