ATLANTA — Even the iconic Rockefeller Center Christmas tree has to come down after the holidays.
For the ninth year in a row, the tree set aglow during a televised ceremony and visited by an estimated 500,000 people each year, will be milled into lumber for Habitat for Humanity projects.
The 2014 tree, an 85-foot tall Norway spruce from Danville, Pennsylvania, is being used in five Philadelphia homes still under construction. Chris Clarke, vice president of marketing and communications for Habitat, said projects are selected close to where the annual tree grew, ensuring it's re-used close to home.
Each family receives a piece of lumber from the tree etched with a small Christmas tree and the year, usually placed somewhere it can be seen. Volunteers on the chosen project usually sign another piece.
In Lisa Wilson's newly built Philadelphia home, both pieces are visible under her basement stairs.
"It's an honor to have it placed in my home," Wilson, a mother of a 19-year-old girl and a 9-year-old boy, said the day before her Philadelphia home's dedication ceremony. "We're a part of such meaningful history."
The partnership between the nonprofit and Tishman Speyer, the company that owns Rockefeller Center, is young compared to the tradition of the tree. Workers at the Rockefeller Center construction site in 1931 took up a collection to buy a Christmas tree, while the first official lighting was held in 1933.
Pamela Banks, a 49-year-old mother of seven, said she didn't know anything about the tree's history until Habitat officials at the Philadelphia affiliate delivered news that her house would include some of the 2014 lumber. She's hoping the lumber will be used somewhere visible, letting her point it out to visitors after the house is completed this spring.
"I'll say 'This came from New York,'" Banks said, laughing. "It's the whipped cream on top of the pie."
Banks put in 350 hours of work on other Habitat projects, a condition of the organization's mortgage program. Participants also take classes and meet with financial advisers, learning how to save a certain amount each month and preparing for other tasks that come up during homeownership.
Banks is looking forward to a basement where her 8- and 10-year-old sons can play, bedrooms where they can study undisturbed and enough living space to host her five grown daughters and their families for big meals.
Clarke said the lumber donations don't save Habitat an enormous amount of money despite the size of the tree each year. Building a house, after all, takes a lot of lumber. But the partnership does help remind people of those without safe or affordable housing, he said.
"The gift of the tree helps remind people there are a lot of folks who need a hand up," he said. "The holidays are generally a big time for any nonprofit to raise funds, so we do see a spike and I believe firmly that the story of the tree helps."
Recipients of lumber from the 2015 tree, grown in upstate New York and weighing 10 tons, haven't been determined yet. Previous homes have been in Pascagoula, Mississippi; New York City; Stamford, Connecticut; and Newburgh, New York.