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Meet the family who donated this year’s Rockefeller Center Christmas tree

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The tree that soared over Matt and Jackie McGinley’s house had blended into the backdrop.

It greeted them each time they pulled into their driveway, it watched as their two daughters left for school and later returned home, it stood tall over their Vestal, New York, home during the five years the family lived there. 

It became such a part of their everyday life that, even at 80 feet tall, it almost went unseen.

“The tree really just kind of lived in the background of our lives,” Jackie said.

It’s recently moved to the forefront of their lives, and millions of others’, after being selected as the 2023 Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. It will be illuminated with 50,000 multi-colored bulbs during Wednesday’s tree lighting ceremony and stand in the heart of Manhattan throughout the holiday season as an estimated 750,000 people a day come to see it.

“We feel incredibly lucky for the opportunity to be of service to millions of people,” said Jackie, who will attend the tree lighting with her family. “How often in one’s lifetime do you get to do something that will bring millions of people joy? I don’t know if I’ll ever have this opportunity again.” 

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‘I’m here to look at your tree’

The McGinley family’s 80-foot, 12-ton tree that was selected to be the 2023 Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Credit: Rockefeller Center

The McGinleys didn’t know where the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree came from each year until one was taken from their yard.

A forest in the country? A tree farm? A factory that makes oversized artificial trees?

Then one day Matt’s brother visited and took notice of the property’s 80-foot Norway Spruce.

“He pulled into the driveway, looked up the tree and said, ‘That could be a Rockefeller Center tree,’ and my husband kind of laughed it off,” Jackie said.  “But I like to think that he kind of put that idea out into the world.”

Just weeks later, on a summer evening, another car pulled into the McGinley’s driveway. Matt initially assumed the unexpected visitor was a real estate agent, but it turned out he wasn’t there to see the house…or even the homeowners, really.

“My name is Erik,” the visitor told Matt. “I’m from Rockefeller Center. I’m here to look at your tree.”

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Erik Pauze has looked at many trees during his 30-plus year career as the head gardener at Rockefeller Center. Each year he is responsible for selecting, nurturing and transporting the site’s famed Christmas tree. 

Pauze told Matt, a music composer, and Jackie, a professor at Binghamton University, that he had been driving through the neighborhood to scout another tree when he spotted theirs.

“I went inside and Googled him,” Jackie said. “And it was him, the image was the same person in my driveway. So, that kind of is how it began, just having somebody pull into your driveway in June.”

Pauze asked if they’d consider donating the tree to Rockefeller Center.

“Sometimes it takes a little convincing,” Pauze said. “Sometimes they just want to be talked through it. After that there’s usually a little family discussion.”

The McGinley’s family discussion didn’t take long.

“It was an immediate, ‘Yes, of course!’ and ‘What do you need from us?’” Jackie said.

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A secretive process

The 2023 Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is removed from the McGinley family’s yard in Vestal, New York. Credit: Diane Bondareff/AP Images for Tishman Speyer

Jackie said they were only told the tree was in consideration, even while Pauze began making regular trips to the house over the summer to feed and water the tree with 800 to 1,000 gallons of compost tea and water.

“The process is so secretive, even for the homeowners,” Jackie said. “The conversations within our own home turned to, ‘Wow, do you think this is really going to happen? Is it really going to be our tree?’ Up until that point we just thought we were on a short list, that they were dating lots of others trees and ours was just one among them.

Confirmation that their tree was the tree came in the fall, but it still had to remain a well-kept secret.

“It was at times difficult to keep the secret because you know something so big is happening, not just for you but for your neighborhood and your community and you want other people to share in that excitement,” Jackie said. “At the same time, you want to be respectful of the craft and honor that secret so that things can be done in a safe and timely way.”

Once the official announcement was made, the news and excitement could finally be shared.

The tree stood right up against the property line, and Jackie said the neighbor to the opposite side, who was in the process of selling their house at the time, fully supported the idea. The McGinley’s other next-door neighbor baked Christmas-tree shaped cookies on the day the tree was to be cut down. The homeowners across the street never complained about the cars that would park in front of their house and the people who would stand in their yard while taking photos of the future Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

“We really have been blessed with wonderful neighbors who have been charmed by this experience and incredibly supportive,” Jackie said. 

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Workers spent days wrapping each branch to prepare the tree for its drive from Vestal to Manhattan, a roughly 170-mile trip. Machinery was set up on the property. The crew arrived around 6 a.m. on a November morning on the day the tree was to be cut down by chainsaw.

“Just watching these folks and mastery they have in their craft was really one of the highlights of the whole experience,” Jackie said.

A crane then lowered the 12-ton tree onto a flatbed truck. It was strapped down, covered in Rockefeller Center banners and removed from the only home it had ever known. 

A tree’s new home

The McGinley family from Vestal, New York donated this year’s Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Credit: Diane Bondareff/AP Images for Tishman Speyer

The next time the McGinley family saw the tree was when it pulled into Rockefeller Center.

After a crane lifted the tree off the truck, a hole was drilled into its stump and a spike was inserted to help guide the tree into its stand. It’s a Rockefeller Center tradition that the family that donated the tree is first to hammer the spike into the tree.

That job went to Jackie and her daughters, 12-year-old Zooey and 9-year-old Charlie.

“It was really important to my husband that it be the three women of the family who stake the tree,” Jackie said. “So, he stayed out of it, but we took care of it.”

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The tree was then lifted into place, taking its spot in Christmas history. 

“Later in the day we went back to the plaza just as visitors of New York City and stood and watched all these people gathered around in joy and excitement looking at the tree,” Jackie said. “And that was my favorite moment for that day.”

The McGinleys returned home, where a stump now sits where the tree once stood.

People still come to take pictures with the stump or grab remnants of the tree to use for ornaments or crafts. 

“We love that because it’s kind of like a giving tree,” Jackie said. “The tree, even in stump form, has something to give.”

As does the tree itself. When it is taken down at Rockefeller Center after the holiday season, it will be milled into lumber and used by Habitat for Humanity to build houses for those in need.

The stump at the McGinley house eventually will be removed. In the spring, Pauze and the Rockefeller Center crew will add new plantings to stand in place of the tree that went on to bring Christmas joy to millions. 

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“We’re having some arborvitaes put in along the tree line,” Jackie said. “So, we are excited for that next phase of our yard, too.”

Ever wonder how the Rockefeller Center picks its Christmas tree?

Source: NBC New York

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