Photos by Lauren Thomas
Gert Asendorf, 87, marvels at the scene taking place in her front yard on Route 44/55 in Gardiner on an unseasonably warm November 4 morning. State Police troopers have closed the road to traffic and hundreds of people have gathered in the neighborhood, standing behind barricades set up or sitting on folding chairs brought from home. They appear comfortably stationed for the duration on the lawn across the street next to the Wallkill Senior High School mixed choir and wind ensemble, who are serenading everyone with Christmas music.
Gert’s son, Al Asendorf, is giving interviews like a seasoned pro to the press who swarm his property. Photographers circle around him, snapping their shutters with an intensity usually reserved for visiting dignitaries at the U.N. Reporters from PBS and network television shoot video of the scene. Al’s companion of more than 20 years, Nancy Puchalski, is at his side fielding inquiries, the couple having just completed a radio interview inside the house.
The rest of the four generation-family who live on the property survey the commotion from the sidelines. Abby Asendorf, 6, wields her mom Andrea’s camera with confident poise. Briana Hoffnagle, 12, joins her grandma Nancy to answer a reporter’s question. “This is crazy!” she says with a sweet smile. “I never thought this would happen. But it’s really cool. Before the head gardener came and looked at the tree, I never thought anything of it.”
The “head gardener” she refers to is Erik Pauze, who at the moment is standing with workers next to a massive 130-ton crane towering over the majestic 78-foot-tall, ten-ton Norway Spruce in the Asendorf front yard. The tree is wrapped and prepared to be cut down and taken to Manhattan where it will become the official Rockefeller Center Christmas tree for the 2015-2016 holiday season. The annual tree is scouted each year by Pauze, who is, indeed, head gardener for all of the plantings and landscaping at Rockefeller Center.
The process of choosing the tree begins online — where else, these days — with photographs submitted to Pauze for his consideration. He looks for a tree in the later years of its life cycle that measures at least 75 feet tall, and the preferred species is a Norway Spruce. “They’re nice, full trees with strong branches,” he says, pointing out that the tree has to hold up to all the lights that will be put on it. “You just know when you see the one,” he adds. “It says to you it’s the Christmas tree.”
The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is, of course, the iconic center of New York City’s holiday celebrations. With an estimated 500,000 people visiting the tree daily each December, it’s arguably the most famous Christmas tree in the world. Tens of thousands will gather in the streets around Rockefeller Plaza to watch the tree lighting ceremony in person on December 2 and hundreds of millions more will watch the live broadcast of it featuring the Rockettes.
And this year, the legendary tree has put our own Gardiner on the map.
Al Asendorf says he submitted a photograph of the tree in his front yard as “more of a joke, really,” never expecting to hear anything back until Pauze showed up at his front door in August. The tree was ready to come down, and Asendorf had been searching for the best way to remove it when he ran across the Rockefeller Center website. “The tree was just getting too big,” he says. “My electric lines go through there, and we didn’t want it to come down and hit the house, and take wires out. It takes up the whole yard, too; you can’t see the house, and can’t see out of the house.” He pointed out some mold growing on the roof where the sun can’t get through the tree’s dense foliage. “It’s time for it to come down; it’s served its life.”
Asendorf is pleased that the Spruce will be donated to Habitat for Humanity after the holidays. The trunk will be milled and made into lumber to build a home for a family in need. This is the ninth year that the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree will live on in spirit in this way. As one grateful recipient of a Habitat home built with the special tree lumber said a few years ago, “The tree used to be a nest for the birds, and now it’s a nest for me and my family.”
Lumber from Rockefeller Center Christmas trees has been used to construct Habitat homes across the country, in places that include Pascagoula, Mississippi; Stamford, Connecticut; Morris, New Jersey; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Newburgh, New York. But even before the association with Habitat began, the Rockefeller Center tree has been recycled in one way or another since the 1970s. It’s been turned into mulch after the holidays to be used on the nature trails of upper Manhattan and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have been recipients of the leftover lumber for their projects.
Asendorf remembers moving into the family home on Route 44/55 in 1957, when he was just four years old. The tree was six feet tall then, Al says, although it could have been taller, he adds; some family members think it might have been. The tree that now has boughs that measure 47 feet in diameter at the widest point was one of three evergreens that once lived at the property, remembers Al’s mom, Gert. Her voice still holding a trace of her native German accent, she recalls how after her aunt and uncle brought her to America to escape the war in Europe, she moved into the house in Gardiner with her husband and family. She says the area was still so unpopulated and wide open then that she wanted her husband to plant more trees “just so the house looked like someone lived there.” Besides, she adds, she was a country girl and she wanted trees around her.
Those other evergreens died off over the years. But the tree that lived on will always remain a special part of the Asendorf family memories, with multiple generations having climbed it and played around its base. It’s “bittersweet” to see the tree go, says Al’s son, Sean, “but it will be worth it to see the tree at Rockefeller Center.”
Christmas is a big holiday for the extended family, says Al, with their house the center gathering place. “Our house is full of people at Christmas. And my dad would have really gotten a kick out of seeing the tree in New York City. He used to prune the tree into the perfect Christmas tree shape until he couldn’t reach the top of it anymore.”
Albert’s dad had such a special connection to the tree, in fact, that when he passed away, the family put an image of a bird and a Spruce tree on his tombstone. “My father came over from Germany, and went through the service in WWII,” Al says, “then he bought this house. I feel like, ‘The country let him in, now he’s giving back to the country by giving this tree.'”
History of the Rockefeller Center tree
The first Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center was put up by construction workers in 1931 in the midst of the Great Depression. They decorated a 20-foot-tall Balsam Fir with homemade garlands made by their families. Photographs from the time show the men lining up by the tree to receive their paychecks on the muddy site that would become Rockefeller Center. The festive tree appears in contrast to the grim faces of the men, who probably felt themselves fortunate to at least be getting a paycheck in those dark financial times.
Two years later, Rockefeller Center decided the tradition of an annual Christmas tree should be adopted on the same spot as the workers’ tree. They organized a tree-lighting ceremony, which over the years has reflected its times. In 1942 with World War II ongoing, three small trees were erected instead of the one, each trimmed individually in patriotic red, white or blue. Nearly six decades later, the patriotic colors would return on the tree erected post 9/11.
In 1944, in keeping with wartime blackout regulations, the trees remained unlit, as did every other outdoor Christmas tree in the city that year. After the war ended in 1945, organizers made up for the previous years of darkness by using six ultraviolet light projectors to make 700 fluorescent globes on that year’s tree appear to glow in the dark.
The Rockefeller Christmas tree made its television debut on NBC-TV in 1951, on a show hosted by Kate Smith, known at the time for her work on radio. From 1953-55, kids watched the tree lighting ceremony on The Howdy Doody Show. The years that followed saw the introduction of famous personalities appearing at the tree lighting ceremony, which now has evolved to become a two-hour extravaganza of live entertainment before the switch is thrown to light the tree.
The 83rd Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony with all the associated festivities will be held on Wednesday, December 2, broadcast live on NBC from 7-9 p.m. The tree can be visited at Rockefeller Plaza, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, daily from 5:30 a.m. to midnight. It will remain on view through 8 p.m. on January 6.
The moment arrives
But on this warm “No Coat November” day in the Asendorf front yard, holiday festivities are still weeks away. When the moment arrives to cut down the Spruce, Pauze and the workmen labor together. Cutting through the trunk by chainsaw takes just minutes. Several workmen around the perimeter of the evergreen hold it stable by pulling on ropes tied to harnesses on the tree as the crane operator gently slides the tree horizontally off its trunk base. With a slight spinning motion, the tree leaves behind its earthbound roots to be held aloft, suspended several feet in the air, still held erect.
As the crane operator slowly tips the tree to a full horizontal position suspended in the air, the men hold onto the ropes to control the tree’s movement in much the same way you see the balloon handlers in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade control their charges. The trussed up tree resembles an airborne blimp, in fact, gracefully hovering over a row of smaller trees at the front of the yard.
The operation to move the tree to the 115-foot-long trailer for its 90-mile trip to Manhattan is a smooth one; it’s impressive to see how the finesse of the workmen accomplishes the task as the crowd cheers.
It’ll be hours yet before the trailer is ready to move off down the street. But in the meantime, the Asendorf grandchildren climb up onto the stump, counting the tree rings they find. They put their heads together briefly to come up with the final count. “68!” shouts Abby.
“It’s strange to see the yard without the tree,” says Albert. “There are decades of family memories. But seeing the tree lit at Rockefeller Center will be the highlight; and I’m sure my father will be watching.”