Rockefeller Tree Lighting Turns New Yorkers Into Grinches

Chris and Cuma Kyzer love the holiday season. So when they learned that this year’s Rockefeller Center tree lighting would fall on their 20th wedding anniversary, they booked a trip from their home state of Arkansas. They arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport at 2 p.m. Wednesday, dropped their luggage at a hotel and headed to Midtown to snag a spot for the event.

They weren’t alone. Nearly five hours before the ceremony began, some 100 people huddled between police barricades and waited in line ahead of them to cross 52nd Street and Sixth Avenue on their way to the viewing area. The crowd didn’t bother Cuma Kyzer. “It is just so magical,” she said. “Today I really feel like I am in the spirit because I am in New York.”

Not everyone in New York felt that holiday joy on Wednesday.

“After some time New York loses its magic and just becomes a place where you have to go to work,” said Nick Brennen, a booker for the Today Show at 30 Rockefeller Center. He watched the tree lighting from his office window last year when he was a NBC page, but said his enthusiasm for the event has been dulled by the sheer chaos of New York City’s holiday season.

A couple at Sixth Avenue and 49th Street watched tourists walk toward Rockefeller Center. (The Ink/Meira Gebel)

For many Midtown workers, the tree lighting marks the beginning of seasonal grumpiness. Sidewalks become impossible to maneuver, not only because they are filled with tourists snapping selfies, but also because of street closures and escalated police presence. Navigating from office to subway can require advance planning and is especially challenging on the day of the tree lighting.

Still, the tree ceremony draws tens of thousand of attendees to jam into a single block in the heart of Midtown. Who are they?  

“People who need to check something off their list,” said Kristine Abate, who works at Del Frisco’s, a popular restaurant for tourists a block from Rockefeller Center. She admitted to being quite jaded about the holiday, but she understands the awe.

“Listen, I’m sure there will be a kid from the Midwest here tonight who sees the tree and is inspired to move here when he grows up,” she said, laughing. “I’m sure many life changing experiences will happen. I hope a hundred people get engaged and have babies.”

David Kerr, a webcaster for Barclays, was not as enthused about tourists contributing to the already overcrowded neighborhood.

“The tourists are just too much to deal with when you are leaving from a full day of work,” he said heading to the subway at 3:30 p.m. to beat the crowd. Kerr has worked in Midtown for the last five years and leaves the office early every year on the day of the tree lighting.

Avi Paz said visitors to see the tree lighting don’t usually stop to shop at his jewelry store and shoe shine.  (The Ink/Meira Gebel)

Commuters like Kerr raced along, eyes focused, headphones in, attempting to avoid the impending chaos as tourists strolled along Sixth Avenue, fists clutching shopping bags. Many stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to take selfies with Radio City Music Hall or The Tonight Show signs behind them. Most were bundled in scarves and coats ready for a long night of festivities.

Not enough of them were flexing their pocketbooks, said one local store owner.

“If you look inside the shops, you won’t see anyone shopping,” said Avi Paz, owner of a jewelry store and shoe shine in the Diamond District. “The tourists, they window shop, turn around and go see the tree. I don’t see a benefit for me, but maybe for the department stores.”

As the afternoon turned into evening, confusion, anger and frustration could be seen on the faces of those who earlier had been overjoyed. Tourists squeezed next to each other on sidewalks, some yelling into cell phones to find friends. One couple had lost their child somewhere between 48th and 49th Streets.

“You need to find our child!” a man in a black flannel yelled at a woman wearing Christmas lights around her neck, her shoulders shaking as she wept in front of hundreds of passersby.

At 8 p.m., Christmas music filled the streets as the tree lighting ceremony officially began.

“I want to see the event, but I don’t think I’ll be able to,” said Teresa Yebez, who came from Ecuador to spend the holidays with her 23-year-old daughter. Yebez was denied entry into the Rockefeller Center area because she was carrying a backpack. So were many others, and some were very vocal about their frustration.

“We are just trying to see the tree,” yelled one woman who was turned away at the 52nd Street checkpoint by a police officer.

Scenes such as this played out throughout the blocks surrounding the event. Some, like Kayla Brancaccio, felt overwhelmed but still grasped onto optimism and holiday joy.

The 49th Street subway station filled with people heading to and leaving Rockefeller Center during the tree lighting ceremony on Wednesday. (The Ink/Meira Gebel)

“The unity is what makes this season great, but the organization is just terrible,” said Brancaccio. She and her husband were walking toward the subway to head home to Brooklyn as Seal sang “The Christmas Song” in the background. The couple had come to see the lighting for the first time.

“Maybe next year,” she said.