The strange, cool job of picking the Rockefeller Christmas tree

This year’s is fresh off of Interstate 80.
This year’s is fresh off of Interstate 80.
Image: AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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The long and illustrious legacy of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan simply wouldn’t be possible without one little-known but vital person: the Rock’s head gardener.

In addition to maintaining the grounds around Rockefeller Center, each year the head gardener is responsible for scouting and selecting an adequate Christmas tree. The selection is important—thousands gather every year to watch the tree light up and millions more (tourists) pass it by until it’s taken down in early January. It’s one of New York’s iconic images—perhaps the most famous tree in the US—and its selection rests on one man.

Since 2010, that man has been Erik Pauze, a longtime Rockefeller groundskeeper who became head gardener when 26-year veteran David Murbach died. Pauze tours the tri-state area throughout the year, hoping to find a “worthy specimen.” The tree, of course, needs to be big (trees less than 70 feet tall are rarely selected) and sturdy enough to hold the weight of the lights and stand strong in bad weather. A classic Christmas tree facade with straight, symmetrical branches is a plus.

This year, Pauze selected an 85-foot, 13-ton Norway spruce from central Pennsylvania. It’s the second tallest tree since 1999, when Murbach picked a 100-foot spruce from Connecticut. Pauze told the Associated Press that he spotted this year’s winner from the highway while driving down Interstate 80. But the tree wasn’t quite ready then, he said. It needed a bit longer to mature. And anyway, its owners didn’t want to part ways with their enormous, 90-year-old plant.

Pauze would occasionally visit the massive Spruce in Pennsylvania to watch its progress, like a college coach might check up on a five-star recruit. When the farm where the tree lived was sold, the new owners agreed to part with it. Tonight it will be decorated with 45,000 LED lights and topped with a 550-pound Swarovski star.

On January 7th, the tree will be removed, made into lumber, and donated to Habitat for Humanity.

Here are Pauze and the farm owners talking about the tree as it’s cut down and made ready for transport to New York: