Madison Square Christmas Tree Lighting, 1942

Number 4

Sunday, December 12, 2010 - 10:00 PM

In December 1942, just three years after the tree lighting spectacular at City Hall when one of Mayor La Guardia's children flipped a switch and instantly lit up 22 trees throughout the boroughs, strict wartime dimout regulations dictated how people in New York, New Jersey and Delaware celebrated the holiday season.

These rules, revised by the Army in November and published in The New York Times, required residences and businesses in coastal areas turn off all lights a half hour after sunset in an effort to thwart enemy air attack.

All exterior "non-essential illumination," including lighting at gas stations, marquees and holiday decorations were ordered to be "permanently shielded in such a manner that no source of light will be visible at an angle less than 45 degrees below the horizontal." Violating this seemingly obtuse regulation could land you in prison for a year.

Needless to say, these limitations on exterior lighting threw a wrench in the City's plans for mass-illumination of holiday decorations.

One solution, used by the folks responsible for the City Hall tree lighting (remember them?), was to simply shorten the celebration. On December 21, Mayor La Guardia flipped a switch that lit 360 bulbs on a 60-foot tree in the center of City Hall Park, delivered a Christmas message to the people of New York, and then, a half-hour later, switched the lights off. For the rest of the time the tree was up, special Parks Department guards stood by to make sure the lights were off a half-hour after sundown, in accordance with the dimout regulations.

A few days later, visitors to Madison Square Park celebrated and sang in the dark. The event included no ceremonial switches or twinkling lights, and the tree was smaller than usual. This was a big change for "Tree of Light" tradition celebrated in the park every year since 1911.

The WNYC broadcast for this night, which was sent overseas by shortwave, features reporter Joe Fishler, who emphatically denied accusations leveled on the city that it "has no heart" by recounting, in detail, the traditions and history of the "Tree of Light" ceremony.

Fishler was followed by Master of Ceremonies Edgar Krauss, who spoke from the stage and encouraged the park audience, and those listening at home, to join the Metropolitan Life Insurance Glee Club and Band in singing carols "for the boys and girls overseas."

Before signing off, Fishler reminded the audience that this ceremony is proof that "in spite of what you may have heard from our enemy propagandists in Germany ... we here in America still have Christmas trees and will keep on having Christmas trees as long as there is a United States of America."

All of these older recordings were originally made using 16" lacquer discs cut on record lathes by WNYC engineers. Some have groove damage from frequent plays and/or deterioration due to age. So, periodically throughout this recording you may hear some brief skipping, clicks, ticks and pops.


Audio from the WNYC Archives collection.


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About Annotations: The NEH Preservation Project

In September 2010, WNYC's Archives and Preservation Department initiated a two-year archival digitization project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Its goal is to reformat 660 hours of choice recordings from the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC collection found on lacquer disc and open reel tape.

For more information, please visit the 2010-2013 NEH-Funded Preservation Project page.

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The 2010-2013 NEH-Funded Preservation Project has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this web resource do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


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