Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting: The Symbol of the Holiday For Every Generation


Memories just aren’t what they used to be. As modern neuroscience continues to define and redefine who we are and how our brains function, we are left in the present picking up the fragments of what that means for us. With science telling us that memory is an unreliable collection of re-enactments, it can become unclear whether anything is as good as we remember it, or whether anything we remember was actually this good.

The holiday season is a unique time to think about memory because of all the traditions we have in our country that are played out again and again, year after year in nearly the exact same way. How many times have I watched It’s a Wonderful Life or A Charlie Brown Christmas at this time of year? We always expect Santa Claus at the end of the Macy’s Day Parade and the Rockefeller Center tree will be there almost exactly as we remembered it last year.

The importance of these traditional moments is that they help to us to replay our memories more exactly and, as a result, we add nuances to our memories that make them more cherished and more embellished the older we get. This year's Rockefeller Center tree is not just the 2012 tree, it is every tree you remember seeing being compared, contrasted and ultimately, blended into a self-perpetuating tree of your memory the minute you stop looking at it.

This Wednesday, the beloved American tradition will again play out for us in New York City. Since a humble tree was first erected on the sight in 1931 by construction workers (a Rockefeller Publicist organized the official ceremony two years later), Rockefeller Center has played host to a large, decorated tree to bring in the holiday season. For the most part the tree has been a Norway spruce between 60 and 100 feet (the largest was a spruce out of Connecticut in 1999 at a height of 100 feet). The tree has been “green” since 2007 with LED lights and its lumber has been used for community based work such as Habitat for Humanity projects ever since. It’s a great thing.

Through the Great Depression, World War II, Beatniks, blizzards and, more recently, Hurricane Sandy, the tree has been a symbol of the holiday season. In the 1930’s during the Great Depression, the tree was a simple 20 foot pine tree with some tinsel and cans decorating it, but fast forward through the years and the tree has become a fixture. Each year, something new and more splendid is brought to the tree, including now a 9 foot star at the top.

It is always said to be grander than the year before, yet it always kind of imprints the mind again in the same way. This is the part I want to key in on, the way we remember it.

As I alluded to earlier, memory, in light of modern neuroscience, has become something unreliable. While listening to the “Memory and Forgetting” episode of Radiolab this past week, a new way of thinking about memory was illuminated to me. Each time we remember something we are essentially re-living that moment. Let’s use holiday memories as an example. Recall any particular holiday memory; probably it will be one from when you were very young. Each time that memory is remembered it is re-enacted in our minds and each time it is re-enacted, it changes slightly.  

My memories of magical Christmas nights that I had as a kid will be much different than the way my parents recall them. Not any less magical, just different. Each time a memory is re-enacted, it changes. If I remember the Christmas I got my Star Wars action figure Millennium Falcon every time Christmas comes around and my parents have not even thought about it since the event occurred, my memory of it will be much more elaborate and farther from the truth than theirs will be. So, the less something is recalled, the more reliable the memory actually is.

Take the image of the timeless, Rockefeller Center tree. What does reliving a moment again and again and again in essentially the same way do for our memory? Family traditions of decorating trees or making holiday cookies, the same way again and again rubs up against those very fond memories we already have that are the same, yet slightly skewed. We remember how great the tree was last year, while watching it go up this year. Then compare that with a 90-year-old who has seen the tree every year it has been around and we are now seeing a tree that is being compared to an unreliable embellishment not just in our minds, but in the minds of everyone who has witnessed the tree.

Each time we have a new encounter with the tree we add a memory to the blur that is the tree. It is like retracing a drawing over and over again and then lumping that as one memory. It is a beautiful, warm picture of years gone by, but it is unreliable at best. Then amplify the years of our childhood that we really felt the holiday magic and we are left with a holiday that is always wonderful, but not quite what it once was. 

While the tree is prone to be outshone by years past, it also fits in an interesting place as it is essentially a re-enactment of itself while we re-enact it in our minds. Each year, the tradition is replayed in such a way that takes what we have always seen and does it again with some new embellishments. So the memory we have so closely resembles what we currently see, it becomes hard to discern which tree was which, especially for young people. The new tree becomes the old trees of years past the minute it is lit up.

So perhaps this is why tradition has become such an important part of so many holidays and such an important part of humanity in general. A yearly tradition kind of hits the reset button on our memories of an event. We expect it to happen, we remember it happening and when we see it happen in the way we expect, we are left with memories that are fulfilled by a near copy of the last time we saw it. Then we let that memory float around until we re-enact it again while we watch it again, next year.

While a singular memory of a time in our life may betray us, a memory of a tradition becomes reinforced by years of repeating the action. From year to year, it becomes a replay of the last time and in the end, it will more closely live-up to the more grandiose memories we have created of it in our minds.

It is essentially a memory being acted out with the knowledge that you will be making a new memory. That is what makes the tradition something remarkable. The tradition let’s us remember while other people remember and re-enact and together we end up with a feeling similar to George Bailey running through the streets in It’s a Wonderful Life or any other holiday feeling you might have. It’s a forced memory that adds a new memory, copying an old memory that, in the end, gives the action intrinsic quality.  

So, with that being said, enjoy the holiday season and don’t let traditions, however small, go unnoticed.