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NEW YORK – New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Wednesday helped light the Rockefeller Center tree, an 80-foot Norway spruce that made it through Superstorm Sandy.
Thousands of onlookers crowded behind barricades on the streets that surrounded Rockefeller Center. A video screen was provided for those who did not have a direct line of sight of the tree, which was illuminated with more than 30,000 lights and topped by a Swarovski star.
"It makes me want to sing and dance," said Zuri Young, who came several hours early with her boyfriend to watch the lighting for the first time.
"I've heard a lot about it. I was kind of sick of staying home and watching it on television," the 19-year-old nursing student from Queens said.
The tree came from the Mount Olive, New Jersey, home of Joe Balku. Balku lost power and other trees during the storm at his residence about an hour outside of Manhattan.
The tree was taken from his home in November. It had been there for years, measuring about 22 feet (6.7 meters) tall in 1973 when Balku bought the house. It's now 50 feet (15.24 meters) in diameter and weighs 10 tons.
"It's an experience that I cannot get back home," said Freyja Shairp, a 22-year-old from Sidney, Australia, who is working in the U.S. temporarily. She said she hadn't planned to come, but was in the neighborhood.
Standing next to her was Donna D'Agostino, 48, and her 17-year-old daughter. She said she lived in New York City her whole life and decided this was the year she was going to see the lighting.
"It's a bucket list item," said D'Agostino. "I think it starts the whole season."
Erik Pauze, the head gardener at Tishman Speyer, one of the owners of Rockefeller Center, picked out the tree. He said he found it by accident when he got lost while returning to the city on a tree hunting expedition.
"It wasn't even on our list. It was a good find," Pauze said.
Pauze said workers prepared for Superstorm Sandy by bracing the tree with cables to secure and protect it.
The lights were turned on just before 9 p.m. Wednesday in the 80th annual celebration. Prior to that, the tree-lighting event include performances from Rod Stewart, Cee Lo Green, Scotty McCreery, Il Volo, Victoria Justice, Brooke White, Mariah Carey, Trace Adkins and Tony Bennett, along with appearances by Billy Crystal and Bette Midler.
The tradition of a Christmas tree in that location started in 1931, when workers building Rockefeller Center put up the first one. No tree was put up the following year, and in 1933, the first tree-lighting ceremony took place.
People will be able to view the tree until Jan. 7. After its stint in the spotlight, it will be turned into lumber for Habitat for Humanity.