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Annual tree lighting ceremony draws thousands

December 4, 2008 3:17:05 AM PST
A Mississippi family who lost their home in Hurricane Katrina - and got a new house partly built with last year's Rockefeller Center Christmas tree - was among the throng attending this year's lighting ceremony Wednesday. An eight-ton, 72-foot Norway spruce lit up with sparkling holiday colors as tens of thousands of onlookers packed into the streets surrounding the center's plaza, with its famed skating rink and gilded statue depicting Prometheus bringing fire to mankind.

Tony Bennett, Harry Connick Jr., Jamie Foxx and Beyonce were among the entertainers who performed for television audiences and the crowd surrounding the midtown Manhattan complex.

The guests included Tracey Davison, 40, an assistant teacher from Pascagoula, Miss., and her four young daughters: Ashunti, 10, Nylah, 9, Majsa, 8, and Karly, 4. The family moved into their new home, built partly from last year's tree, a few weeks earlier.

"It's been an awesome experience," Davison said moments after the tree lighting. "I have a famous living room because of the tree from last year, and my girls and I have had a spectacular trip to New York for the first time."

Davison's family had moved into an apartment just two days before the hurricane ravaged their neighborhood near the Gulf Coast. Fleeing with just a few suitcases in tow, they lived temporarily with a friend, at her brother's, in a docked cruise ship and a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer.

They were chosen to receive a new Habitat for Humanity home that former President Jimmy Carter, among others, helped build. The three-bedroom, baby blue home was finished in September, and lumber from the 2007 tree was used to build the walls and floors of their living room.

"It's kinda like Christmas before Christmas," Davison said.

"It was a dream come true. We're very, very excited to be in the house."

Davison was among scores of excited spectators who lined the streets to catch glimpses of celebrity performers and to see the enormous tree blaze with festive color.

Even at the age of 71, Anita McLean said she was happy to stand for more than three hours to secure a good view of the lights.

"It's my fourth year, and I'm not cold," she proclaimed, standing with her son and her two grandchildren, ages 14 and 11. "Just being together, the excitement of the day, it's keeping with the spirit of Christmas."

This year's tree is decorated with 30,000 energy-efficient LED lights on 5 miles of wire, topped with a 750-pound star made of 25,000 Swarovski crystals. It was donated by the Varanyak family in Hamilton Township, N.J. The family owns a nursery in Mercer County.

While the first official lighting was in 1933, the first Rockefeller Center Christmas tree was put up two years earlier during the Depression by workers building the Art Deco complex.

In past years, the tree has been recycled after the holiday season in a variety of ways, including making toys for animals at the Bronx Zoo and being mulched for hiking trails.

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