It’s December in New York City, and all kinds of people are out and about decorating for the holidays and getting ready to celebrate however they traditionally do. Menorahs and Christmas lights begin appearing in windows, New Yorkers struggle to push aside the tourists in front of store windows on 34th street, and municipal employees hang lighted snowflakes on telephone poles. Whatever the season means to you, it’s hard to miss one Greenwich Village Christmas tradition being celebrated again this year: The lighting of the Washington Square Park Christmas tree.
The tradition goes back to 1924, when the Washington Square Association invited the community to be part of a Christmas celebration in the park, featuring a tree and the singing of Christmas carols.
“Gustavus T. Kirby, President of the Washington Square Association, announced that this city, like Washington, would have a permanently planted Yule-tide evergreen. The tree was selected at Amawalk, N.Y. by Francis D. Gallatin, the Park Commissioner; George D. Pratt, President of the American Forestry Association, and Mr. Kirby, and will be planted on Tuesday afternoon in Washington Square with appropriate ceremonies. The tree is the gift of Miss Evelyn W. Smith, who presented the National Tree to President Coolidge for planting in the White House grounds. New York’s spruce is a duplicate.” (New York Times, “Railroads Prepare for Christmas Rush” December 21, 1924.)
The original tree was officially presented on December 24, 1924, by Parks Commissioner Gallatin. The “appropriate ceremonies” included the lighting of the tree, which was to be equipped with “1,500 amber, green and red incandescent lights.” (New York Times, “City’s Celebration of Yuletide Begins” December 24, 1924) as well as caroling, and as the article went to press, the plan was to project the words of Christmas carols directly onto the Washington Square Arch, “…so that all present may read and sing.” The living tree, temporarily set up by the arch, was then to be planted permanently elsewhere in the park the following Monday. Unfortunately, this author cannot find any more information about the planting of the tree. However, an article entitled “Real Trees are Urged for XMas” was published in the New York Times the next year (on December 6, 1925) stating, “Each year…a cry is raised that to have Christmas trees is to endanger our waning forest resources. [Charles Lanthrop Pack, president of the American Tree Association] said, ‘Conservation is wise use. The children should have their Christmas trees.’” It seems that today’s Washington Square Christmas Tree is a cut one, but in the spirit of “wise use,” we can still hope that the original living tree was able to be planted and enjoyed for many years after its journey to New York City! And of course, every time we walk through Washington Square Park and see an evergreen, we can imagine that it’s an 87 year veteran of park life.
Although the Washington Square Association continues to host the event, over the years other members of the community have joined in the tree-lighting festivities. For example, from 1993 through 2009, New York University hosted its annual All-University Holiday Sing, with many of its musical ensembles and choirs performing.
“This sensational event brings together family and friends with reminiscent music to rouse us all into the holiday spirit. Featuring performances by NYU’s Jazz Choir, Gospel Choir, University Singers, Ani V’ata, Children’s Chorus, and the NYU Orchestra. Experience the ever-enchanting music from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and let your spirit sing as the NYU Orchestra accompanies the entire audience in an engaging carol sing-a-long! Everyone who attends will receive a surprise treat!” (NYU Events Page, December 9, 2003)
According to sources at the NYU Archives, even former NYU president L. Jay Oliva joined in the fun during his tenure! The sing was held in Washington Square Park in the 1990s, often in conjunction with the caroling at the Washington Square Tree Lighting, and continued to be held inside in later years. The last Holiday Sing in evidence on NYU’s events calendar took place on December 8, 2009, in the Loewe Theater on West 4th Street, seemingly signifying the demise of the holiday tradition.
Although NYU’s All-University Holiday Sing seems to have been discontinued (and readers, please correct me if I’m wrong) the Washington Square Christmas Tree Lighting is still going strong, and the tree was lit this year on December 7th, despite rainy weather. Caroling is planned for December 24th, if anyone is inclined to see the tree for themselves.
Here’s to hoping all our readers have a great holiday, however they do or don’t celebrate, and that all students have a stress-free winter break! Happy holidays from Greenwich Village!