IN 1945, a small group of East Side families, led by Mrs. Stephen C. Clark, undertook to have fir trees lit in the medians of Park Avenue as a memorial to the American servicemen who had died in World War II. From the original group of families, the responsibility for the trees was taken over by the Park Avenue Association, which was supported by contributions from all buildings on the upper part of the avenue. In the present day, the trees are planted and maintained by the Fund for Park Avenue in honor of all men and women who have died in the armed service of the United States.
The trees are lit each year on the first Sunday in December. There is a carol-sing and a brief ceremony in front of the Brick Presbyterian Church, led by its senior minister and musicians. The blocks above 86th Street are closed to traffic, and a crowd of several thousand gathers between 90th and 92nd streets. A few short prayers are offered, a brief mention of the history of the tree lighting is made, and with the words “Let there be light,” the switch is thrown, the lights come on, and one or two more carols are sung before the crown adjourns into the surrounding buildings, usually for further merry-making.
In his book Park Avenue: Street of Dreams, James Trager notes the significance of the tree lighting to the upper avenue.
Only for the Christmas tree lighting––with appropriate words from the minister and the singing of carols––is a block or two [of upper Park Avenue] ever closed to traffic. Building residents may exchange greetings, but this community sing is the closest that Park Avenue ever comes to the sort of neighborhood spirit found in many of the city’s other sections.1
It is worth noting that Trager has not got it quite right. He neglects the real fabric of community, which consists not just in street fairs but in the bonds of family, schools, clubs, and shared history that really bind any human society. Of course these are alive and well, especially on and around upper Park Avenue, where are found the homes and schools of perhaps the largest concentration of our people in all of New York. At the tree-lighting, the New Yorker may see not only his neighbors but also his family and cherished friends. There are few [white] neighborhoods in which this is possible in this era of dispersion, and those of us in Carnegie Hill are the richer for it.
But Trager’s basic point is well taken: the tree lighting is the only event of its type in the neighborhood, and it is the only one where one is apt to see WASPs in any great number out-of-doors on a city street.
This ceremony, and the way in which the trees are funded and maintained, is a product of our people at their best. The trees are illuminated for all the honored dead, and without a great deal of fanfare or requests for thanks. There are no plaques listing sponsors, and no naming opportunities are offered for leading donors. Some may call this elitist, or patronizing, but I would argue that it speaks of a very attractive kind of modesty.
The Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day parades afford a chance for parading, participation, flag-waving, and inclusion of the surviving veterans, and it is quite right that they should. But one must note that such parades are perhaps more for the living than the dead. On Park Avenue, the trees are not maintained by the VFW or the American Legion, and there is something in the honoring of fallen servicemen by civilians that must put each of us in mind of who truly serves whom in this world. Moreover, the trees are a community affair in the widest sense: they are lit for the whole city, for passers-by, asking for nothing, seeking no recognition or thanks, merely offering beauty and remembrance in their quiet way.
1. James Trager. Park Avenue: Street of Dreams (New York: Atheneum, 1990), 261.