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A Very Special Christmas Tree

Still recovering from the World Trade Center attacks, New York City opened the Christmas season Wednesday with a patriotic spirit — lighting 30,000 red, white and blue bulbs on the Rockefeller Center tree.

At 8:56 p.m., first lady Laura Bush and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani jointly turned on the lights strung onto five miles of wires on the 81-foot spruce.

A crowd of about 100,000 onlookers filled the streets between Fifth and Sixth avenues.

"Tonight's tree lighting is a salute to our heroes, our traditions, and to the strength and unity of our nation," Giuliani said.

Bush wished New Yorkers a New Year "filled with peace."

"As we remember the loved ones lost and reflect on the spirit and courage that New Yorkers have shown in abundance, let us be thankful for our family, our friends and our great country," Bush said. "America loves New York."

The people in attendance cheered when the tree lit up after a 10-second countdown. The windows of surrounding buildings were filled with smiling faces.

Many spectators said the tree-lighting ceremony would show the country, and the rest of the world, that New Yorkers were rebounding from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"I figured that after all we went through, we might as well come down and face our fears," 24-year-old Breena Salberg, of Rockland County, said after watching the tree light up. "New York is still the best."

The two-hour show, televised live nationally, began at 7 p.m. with police Officer Daniel Rodriguez singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," followed by Tony Bennett and Vanessa Williams in "Walking in a Winter Wonderland."

Television viewers were invited to donate to charities benefiting the families of more than 3,000 Trade Center victims.

Also performing were the Radio City Rockettes and singers Destiny's Child, Jessica Simpson, Marc Anthony and John Mellencamp. Olympic pair skaters Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman performed on the skating rink below the tree.

Spectators began lining up for the spectacle as early as 3 p.m. in the metal police pens.

Sitting on a midtown Manhattan sidewalk curb, Kerry Weiss was smiling at the prospect of the long wait for what she called "a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

"We're from Chicago, and we've never seen this before," she said. "We got here Sunday, and New York has been so good to us. Everybody's so friendly."

Weiss and her kids, 16-year-old Jordan and 14-year-old Megan, staked out a spot on Rockefeller Plaza at the front of a metal police pen close to the tree.

The Weiss family munched on hero sandwiches they bought on 42nd Street.

"We're trying to do the New York cuisine. You know, hot dogs off the street, nuts, heroes," said Kerry Weiss.

Two and a half months after the Trade Center terrorist attack, this festive heart of New York City resembled an armed camp.

Hundreds of police officers guarded layers of metal pens set up to hold the crowds. Police kept passers-by from stopping to peer athe mammoth tree, yelling out, "Keep moving!"

But the security didn't dampen spirits.

"With what we're going through, we need some joy," said Jessica Rios, a college student who turned 20 on Wednesday.

She was triple-celebrating: her birthday, the warm weather and the Christmas tree.

"It's beautiful! That's New York — it catches you by surprise!" said the Bronx resident.

Across West 50th Street, the Norway spruce sat on a perch overlooking the Rockefeller Center skating rink, lined with American flags.

The tree came from the backyard of Andrew and Kelly Tornabene in Wayne, N.J. The Queens natives had agreed to donate their tree.

The spruce, which experts say is 71 years old, would have been a young tree when the Rockefeller Center tradition began in 1931. That year, workers building the Art Deco complex placed a small, unadorned evergreen on the muddy construction site.

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