The Awesome Second Life of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

Each year since 2007, Habitat for Humanity has turned the tree's wood into a home for a needy family.

The Rockefeller Center christmas

The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York City on Dec. 11. (Photo: Ben Hider/Getty Images)

A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

The lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in early December is a holiday tradition that one would hope even the grumpiest New Yorkers warmly embrace. But beyond its magical ability to soothe scroogy souls, the tree serves a greater practical purpose—its lumber is used to construct a home for a family in need.

Each year Habitat for Humanity mills the wood from the gargantuan Rock Center tree to build a house for a deserving family. In January this year’s 76-foot spruce will be hauled back to Connecticut, where it was grown, to become part of a new house for an impoverished Bridgeport family.

“The 2013 Rockefeller Christmas tree will come full circle, from a seedling in neighboring Shelton, Conn., to Rockefeller Center as a symbol of hope and promise, and finally a vital part of a new home,” said Keith Cook, copresident and director of construction at Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County, in a statement.

It’s a fairly new tradition, one that began in 2007. Tishman Speyer Properties, the company that owns Rockefeller Center, donated that year’s 84-foot Norway spruce to Habitat for Humanity, which used it to construct a home for Tracey Davison, a Hurricane Katrina survivor.

Each year since, Habitat has repurposed the tree’s wood for the construction of a home; houses have been erected in cities such as Philadelphia and Stamford, Conn.

The Rock Center trees aren’t the only big-city trees to find a noble second life.

In 2010, a 100-foot, 14,000-pound tree was shipped from Oregon to stand in Kansas City’s Crown Center. Once the holiday season ended, the tree was cut into commemorative ornaments that were sold to benefit the city’s less fortunate.

The Vatican Christmas trees have also historically been put to philanthropic use. The 2008 tree, a 120-year-old, 109-foot stunner, was recycled into toys for needy children. Wood from the 2009 tree was used to make carved statues, which were sold to raise money for the poor in and around Rome.

Even smaller trees, like those that millions of American put up in their homes every holiday season, can have a positive impact.

Last year several communities in Midway Beach, N.J., collected trees from homes and used them to shore up sand dunes decimated by Hurricane Sandy.

“They literally anchor and string together entire trees towards the backside of beaches,” says Rick Dungey, project relations manager for the National Christmas Tree Association. “The wind will blow sand over those trees, and it collects. So it prevents waves and storm fronts from eroding beaches.”

Dungey says it’s a practice that’s commonplace in coastal communities from Texas all the way up the Eastern Seaboard.

In other states, such as Louisiana and Maryland, Christmas trees are used to create elaborate underwater fences that prevent saltwater from invading and degrading freshwater ecosystems.

Agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Natural Resources collect whole Christmas trees and sink them into bodies of freshwater, particularly man-made lakes. As the trees decay, they stimulate algae growth, which then feeds phytoplankton and zooplankton. This, in turn, feeds small crustaceans and fish.

Back in New York, the city’s Sanitation Department collects residents’ trees from street corners and mulches them for use in parks and playgrounds across the five boroughs.

So apparently it’s not just peed-on restaurant waste piling up on NYC’s sidewalks.

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