NEW YORK (AP) _ The Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center came to life in a blaze of 30,000 lights Wednesday night before a crowd of thousands of New Yorkers and visitors from around the world.

Before flipping the switch to usher in the holiday season, Mayor Michael Bloomberg dedicated the lighting ceremony to U.S. soldiers everywhere.

As the temperature dipped below freezing, 6-foot-7 Anthony Jenkins found warmth and good wishes in the packed crowd after dressing up as a giant Santa. ``What I get out of it is the love of the people,'' said Jenkins, 55.

For Hy Safran, 19, and friend Melissa Opper, 18, both students at Columbia University, watching the tree lighting stirred their patriotism.

``I wanted to experience the season,'' Safran said, adding that he and Opper are both Jewish but that ``the Christmas spirit has become the American spirit since 9-11.''

The 79-foot, 9-ton tree was planted 50 years ago in Manchester, Conn. It arrived in Manhattan last month on a Hudson River barge and was trucked to the midtown landmark where it will remain lit until Jan. 6.

The televised Christmas show featured performances by Harry Connick Jr., Ashanti, Enrique Iglesias, Gloria Estefan, Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard and the Brian Setzer Orchestra.

The tree tradition dates to 1931, when workers building Rockefeller Center erected a small tree amid the Art Deco buildings rising between Fifth and Sixth avenues. Since then, the tree has been lit on the first Wednesday after Thanksgiving.