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First Lady Lights Rockefeller Tree

December 3, 1998

NEW YORK (AP) _ You could hardly hear 11-year-old Shadashja Jackson in the crowd, but one thing was clear: The lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree was her signal for the start of the holiday season.

``I’ve been singing `Silent Night’ and waiting for this wonderful moment for so long. I can’t wait for it to snow,″ said Miss Jackson, who danced and shouted with joy as the tree was lit Wednesday night in her hometown.

Thousands of people crowded into the midtown Manhattan plaza cheered when the 26,000 lights on the 75-foot-tall Norway spruce twinkled on at 8:52 p.m. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and country singer Garth Brooks switched on the lights.

``I’m thrilled,″ Mrs. Clinton said. ``I’ve heard about this and seen it on TV so many times but to see it in person is entirely different.″

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

``This is so cool,″ said Friday Malcolm Ruiz, 8, of Elizabeth, N.J., who waited outside for nearly eight hours. ``It’s my second time, and I love it.″

The celebration began humbly in 1931. Depression-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 on NBC’s ``The Kate Smith Show,″ ushering in a tradition that has grown into a mega-media production. Wednesday’s lighting _ on an unseasonably balmy day _ was televised live by NBC across the country.

The 7 1/2-ton tree arrived on Nov. 12 from Richfield, Ohio, where it graced the front lawn of Ethel and Adolph Szitar’s ranch house for 60 years.

On Wednesday, Mrs. Szitar, 81, was impressed with her tree.

``It looked larger and taller than even when I saw it at home. It’s very beautiful,″ Mrs. Szitar said.

It is not the tallest the plaza has seen. The trees of 1948 and 1996 were each 90 feet tall.

Nor is it the highest tree in Manhattan. A 3-foot tree decorated with toothpaste tubes, gloves and subway tokens is strapped to the roof of the World Trade Center, 1,377 feet above the street.

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