Tuesday, December 19, 2000


The oldest Christmas tree and other local traditions

LOOKING FORWARD by Wally Dobelis

This is an unusual year, with Christmas and Chanukkah overlapping. The final eight day of Chanukkah falls on December 25, Christmas Day. A sign of good things to come, of unity and good tidings.
If you're wondering how a 30-foot Christmas tree magically appears in the Madison Square Park every year, it is sponsored by the 23rd Street Association, a 66-year old civic group of 300 member companies that tries to make life better for people in our neighborhood.
As to the Christmas Tree tradition in the park, it is older than the Association, by 17 years. In fact it is the oldest community Christmas Tree in the entire United States. The idea spread like wildfire, and now Gramercy Park, Stuyvesant Park and Union Square Park have followed the example.
This year's tree was lit, on December 6, by Henry Stern, Parks Commissioner (Assemblyman Steven Sanders was last year's honoree), with the McBurney after-school class singing and the Gramercy Brass playing carols. McDonald's 23rd Street provided cookies and coffee for everyone, and the homeless from Peter's Place (St.Francis de Paul RC Church, between 6th and 7th Avenues) applauded the ceremony. A crowd of 70 came, a far cry from 1912, when 25,000 viewers gathered for the first tree-lighting.
The community Christmas Tree idea was conceived by Emilie D.Lee Herreshoff of Virginia, descendant of the signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a member of a NY shipbuilding family, in 1912. Her idea was taken up by Orlando Rouland, an artist who lived at 130 West 57th Street. Mrs Herreshoff asked the then Mayor William J. Gaynor for an appropriate location. He suggested Washington Square, but the organizers rejected it - the wealthy people there did not need it, and Madison Square Park would serve a better cross section of New Yorkers. A 60-foot tree was found, N.Y. Edison donated a $2,000 gift of 1,200 incandescent lights, and John.D. Hegeman, President of Metropolitan Life, offered to ring the chimes in the adjacent Tower, to the accompaniment of neighborhood church bells. The lighting attracted huge crowds, four trumpeters blew the "Parsifal's Call," singers from the MacDowell School Cantorum and the Ghent Welsh Male Choir sang carols, and there was a band. The Welsh singers had been imported and subsequently abandoned by their impresario (reminds me of a contractor I once had), and through this performance they found another backer who gave them a successful concert tour through the US. And a little abandoned baby was found under the tree, during the intermission, when his cries could be heard. He was adopted by a wealthy family. When the band concert broke up at midnight, 7,000 of the 25,000 attenders were still there, loath to leave this meeting of souls.
The event was such a joy that within three years more than a thousand cities were decorating their public Christmas trees. The park event continued year after year, and when Mrs Rouland in 1937 was too feeble to cary on, a Mrs Louise Carnegie stepped in to help. Widow of the great Andrew, she organized an endowment of $30,000, with a committee consisting of the conductor Walter Damrosch, Harry Harkness Flagler, son of the developer of Miami, the wife of President Benjamin Harrison, Elihu Root, Jr.(son of the Secretary of State and an area resident), Paul D. Cravath (lawyer, President of the Met Opera Association), some Carnegie associates and the hard-working Roulands. The endowment was success and the tree lightings continued, with the event broadcast live on WNYC since 1940. The Met Glee Club performed valiantly and the event was rebroadcast to the servicemen during WWII.
After the War the tree was no longer a rallying point, and the trustees gave all the remaining funds to the Union Theological Seminary, on 120th Street, in 1953. The Parks Department supplied the trees after 1948. There were years when none were lighted, until the Met and New York Life decided to organize the event in alternate years. A break in the tree-lighting occurred, until two years ago the 23rd Street Association decided to revive the tradition.
Homeless Shelters Need Volunteers
Regardless of one's faith, a brightly lit Christmas tree is a reminder of the season. To many it is a reminder of the time to take care of the homeless, when the weather turns cold.
The area homeless shelters need volunteers. Brotherhood Synagogue opens its shelter after the New Year. If you want the heartening experience of spending a evening with people who can tell you what street life is like, sign on. I have picked up many a useful tip about collecting scrap metal, and relative prices paid by dealers in New York and the Bronx, and getting on the subway with a shopping cart full of aluminum window frames. If it ever gets down to that, I know how to make it, gang. Eat your hearts out. Actually, spending an evening and night with the homeless as a shelter volunteer is a wonderful stimulant, and it is addictive. People want to experience that feeling of having been good, of fulfillment that comes so rarely into our lives from working or studying. You get to feel virtuous, for once you have done something that is a real, hands-on, good! It's like making something, a chair that really works, or a toolbox. You feel like somebody, you have accomplished, you have done the Marathon. And it's easier than the Marathon. So call Brotherhood (Judy Golden, 674-5750), or St. George's Church (William Grant, 780-0052), the Friends Meeting House (Sylvia Freedman, 673-8316), or the Madison Avenue Baptist Church (Jeri Easterling, 685-1377). The homeless programs all of these shelters essentially draw their guests from the 10 drop-in centers run by the Partnership for the Homeless, which takes care of 1,500 men and women, through 150 shelter facilities in all five boroughs. The guests are people who are tuberculosis-free, participate in rehabilitation programs and stay clean. And a respectable number of them make it out of the shelter environment and manage to jane the mainstream of humanity. Helping people can be the best Christmas or Chanukkah gift you can give yourself. Happy Holidays!

Wally Dobelis thanks Jane Crotty, Executive Director of the 23rd Street Association, for digging out the story about the community Christmas Tree from a 1962 Met Life publication. For those of us who'd like to know more about the Association, its territory is between 28th and 17th Streets (where it borders with the 14th Street BID), river to river. "Improvement and development of the area" is the official mission, an that includes legislative action. Unlike the BIDs, this is a voluntary association with scaled dues. It also does not provide policing and sanitary services, though they have a Public Safety Committee. Besides businesses, large and small, there are not-for-profit members, such as Baruch, SVA, FIT, National Arts Club, T.Roosevelt House and the Partnership for the Homeless. Its President is Paul Custer, the Executive Director of the McBurney WMCA, while the Chairman is the Director of Operations for Edison Parking, Douglas Sarini.
If you want some Christmas tree savvy, go chat with Cowboy Bob Mitchell, the man in the Western hat who's come back from Boynton Beach to sell Douglas fir and blue spruce from Canada, Oregon and North Carolina on 3rd Avenue, West side, between 19th and 20th Streets, for his 32nd season in the neighborhood.

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