Meet the Man Who Has Picked the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree for Three Decades
Of all the New York City holiday traditions, filing into Rockefeller Center to see the famous Christmas Tree continues to be a source of perennial magic. No matter what’s happening politically or culturally, through pandemics or pandemonium, the sense of awe, excitement, and nostalgia always packs a delightful punch of emotion.
Year after year, there’s a calming reassurance in knowing this stories-high spectacle will land smack in the middle of town. But one mystery remains in this worldwide mainstay: How does the Tree get to the plaza every year? And better yet, who finds it?
Enter Erik Pauze, the head gardener for Rockefeller Center and veritable Santa Claus of Christmas trees. Each year for the past three decades, Pauze has been instrumental in the scouting, nurturing, and transporting of the Norway Spruce that transforms into the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. No pressure.
From logistics to procuring what will be that perfect specimen of holiday joy, Pauze is at the center of the operation (he’s in charge of the rest of Rockefeller Center’s sublime gardens, as well). Though he’s long been at the helm of this process, upon reflection he says not much has changed about the way things are done — fitting, as the tradition of the Tree has looked the same for about as long, save for the Swarovski-encrusted star that has sat atop the Tree since its induction in 2004. Fun fact: The latest star introduced in 2018 features over 3 million crystals as well as LED lights.
It’s easy to imagine a job like this would be shrouded in the technical elements, but Pauze explains the most gratifying part of the job has little to do with the Tree at all. We chatted with the (incredibly busy) horticulturist as Rockefeller Center gears up for its 90th anniversary of the first Tree.
How does one become the person who selects the most famous Christmas Tree in the world?
EP: I’ve loved planting and landscaping since I was really young, and I’ve done nothing else. I started as a summer helper at Rockefeller Center when I was in college in 1988, then came back after school and just started to take on more and more responsibility.
You make it sound so easy. What’s the process like for finding the Tree each year?
EP: It’s somewhat different every year. Typically, the timeline is that all year, almost every day, I’m thinking about this year’s Tree, next year’s Tree, and maybe the Tree after that.
Earlier this year, I was at a nursery to buy plants and trees for Radio Park, a beautiful new garden atop Radio City Music Hall that’s open to all those who work at Rockefeller Center.
I decided to take a ride and look around the area to see if I could find a tree for Rockefeller Center. I got lucky: I came around the top of a small hill and I saw this stunning tree just over someone’s garage, so I knocked on their door.
Every year, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is a Norway Spruce—why this type of tree, and what made this year’s Tree fit the bill?
EP: What I look for is a tree you would want in your living room, but on a grander scale. It’s got that nice, perfect shape all around. And most of all, it’s gotta look good for those kids who turn the corner at 30 Rock; it needs to instantly put a huge smile on their faces. It needs to evoke that feeling of happiness. This year’s definitely hits the mark, and it’s the first Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree to come from Maryland.
The Norway Spruce is great for the scale it can achieve, it can hold the lights on its branches, and it stands there nice and proud as the Tree should.
Tell me about what happens once you’ve found the Tree.
EP: We found this year’s Tree back in March. From then until May, we checked in on it to see how it fared coming out of the winter… then we started to tend to it, watering and feeding it, as well as thinking about the logistics of moving it to Rockefeller Center. This year, the Tree is 79 feet tall and 46 feet wide.
Moving the Tree is an operation in and of itself that can take months to plan and execute — from wrapping each branch of the Tree so it doesn’t bend or snap to compressing the width down so it’s fit for travel.
Having done this so many times, what’s your favorite part of the process?
EP: The scouting process is my favorite because you get to meet and connect with so many great people along the way, many of whom I’m still in touch with today. My other favorite part is seeing the final outcome of the Tree in place at Rockefeller Center with all its decorations. I remember being a young kid and my parents taking me down to New York City to see the Tree, walking up Fifth Avenue and seeing it and being so impressed.
So, what do you look for in your own Christmas tree?
EP: As if I’m the one who picks it! I just have the pickup truck to take it home.