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Holiday Trees Spruce Up Cities

'Tis the season to be jolly, to bundle in warm coats, drink hot cocoa and and see a Christmas tree covered with snow at Rockefeller Center. Right?

Well, it is December. And the lights went on at the Rockefeller Center tree Wednesday night, but the temperature was a balmy 60 degrees in New York.

As temperatures remained a good 20 degrees above normal across much of the nation, signs of Christmas sprang up this week on city streets.

Tipper Gore, wife of vice president Al Gore, topped the National Christmas tree at the Mall in Washington Tuesday. Also on Tuesday, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton accepted a donated tree for the White House Christmas.

Tipper Gore tops the National Christmas Tree
But, "When you think about this weather, it's a little hard to get into the Christmas spirit," Mrs. Clinton said as she received the White House's 18-foot balsam fir on a day the temperature climbed into the mid-60s.

A day later in weather just as warm, the first lady joined thousands of people who crowded into the midtown Manhattan plaza to cheer when the 26,000 lights on the 75-foot-tall Norway spruce twinkled on at 8:52 p.m.

Mrs. Clinton and country singer Garth Brooks switched on the lights.

"I'm thrilled," she said. "I've heard about this and seen it on TV so many times but to see it in person is entirely different."

The crowds listened to Christmas music performed by singers that included Brooks, Jewel and Cyndi Lauper.Olympic gold-medal skater Kristi Yamaguchi did a few turns at the famous ice rink.

Retired schoolteacher Marie Rivera of North Bergen, N.J., waited hours to get a front row spot to watch the lighting of the tree as she has every year since 1948.

"Oooh, it's beautiful!" she gushed. "It's grand!"

The annual celebration began in 1931, when epression-era workmen building the center placed a small unadorned evergreen on the muddy site to lift their Christmas spirits. Two years later, another tree was erected, this time decked out in 700 lights.

And in 1951, the tree-lighting was televised for the first time The Kate Smith Show, ushering in a tradition that has grown into a mega-media production. Wednesday's lighting was televised across the country.

The tree at the World Trade Center
The 7 1/2-ton tree arrived on Nov. 12 from Richfield, Ohio, where it stood for 60 years in the front yard of Ethel and Adolph Szitar's home. Mrs. Szitar, 81, was impressed with her tree Wednesday.

"It looked larger and taller than even when I saw it at home. It's very beautiful," Szitar said.

It inot the tallest the plaza has seen. In 1948 and 1996, the tree towered 90 feet over the famous Rockefeller Center skating rink.

This season, the tallest tree is reportedly in California. But the highest Christmas tree sits a quarter of a mile above the ground on top of the World Trade Center in New York.

It is only a three-feet-tall tree, decorated with toothpaste tubes, gloves and subway tokens, but it can withstand winds up to 40 mph. The tough pine won a contest for the right to be perched for the holidays almost 1,400 feet above the street.