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The Christmas Angels

By Karen HudesDec 7 2017

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is always magnificent, but the 12 luminous angels that line the Channel Gardens during the holidays add that touch of splendor that completes the scene. Created by the English artist Valerie Clarebout, the figures debuted in 1955—following iterations that included snowmen, forest creatures and jack-in-the-boxes—and became an annual presence beginning in 1975.

Born in the early 1900s, Clarebout studied at the Royal Academy of Art in London and Julien Studio in Paris, and moved to the U.S. in 1952. Rockefeller Center architect Robert Carson soon hired the inventive sculptor to design angels for the Plaza, which she crafted from 18 miles of aluminum wire and brass, along with miniature lights. She went on to produce other collections (one of them comprised of 72 animals and four eight-foot-tall trees), and finally made the angels we see today, working in her Fairfield, Connecticut, studio, using 75 pounds of wire to build each eight-foot-tall, winged, robed and haloed figure (76 miles of material for the whole display). Each of the angels, arranged to face each other along the Channel Gardens, holds a six-foot brass trumpet, angled toward the Christmas Tree and heralding the holiday season.

A year before passing away in 1982, Clarebout told the New York Times about the angels: "I love them. I love this time of year. Since I was a child I had a tremendous feeling for Christmas quite apart from a religious holiday. I used to lie on the ground and I thought I could feel the earth being reborn. That's how I always thought of Christmas—as the rebirth of the earth. And now, of course, every year I think of it as bringing the angels back to life."

See Clarebout creating her sculptures in the studio, as well as images of the angels in recent years, in the slideshow above.

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