The Making of the Origami Holiday Tree

One 13-Foot Tree, 1,000 Origami Models: A Spectacular Museum Tradition
The 2020 Origami Holiday Tree is displayed on a pedestal in the Museum's Grand Gallery.
D. Finnin/© AMNH

Early each year, as the days begin to get a bit longer and the first signs of spring crop up in Central Park, Ros Joyce and Talo Kawasaki, volunteers from OrigamiUSA and the designers of the Museum’s Origami Holiday Tree start planning for the year ahead. 

They begin combing the Museum’s halls in search of inspiration—going from floor to floor to decide on a perfect theme and to find just the right exhibits to re-create as origami models on the tree.

Precedent is no limit: “Often,” says Joyce, “we see something in the Museum that we want on the tree that has never been folded, so we have to design a model and find a way to fold it.”

With a theme in place, in April the team is ready for action. Lists of models are compiled, paper of many colors and textures is purchased, and volunteers—both children and adults—are enlisted from all over the world and as far away as Japan to fold the intricately complex models—some of which can take days or even weeks to perfect. Eventually, the volunteers create hundreds of new models. 

After months of folding, in late September the origami pieces begin arriving at the Museum, where the nonprofit OrigamiUSA is housed, just in time for Joyce and Kawasaki to sift through the archives to see which additional models they will need to fill out the tree. The Origami Holiday Tree has been a feature of the Museum’s winter season for more than 40 years; with more than four decades of origami neatly stashed in ten large boxes there is no shortage to the selection.

Some of the highlights include a forty-year-old model of a pterosaur, an extinct vertebrate that was the first to evolve powered flight folded for one of the first origami trees in the early 1970s; a ferocious saber-tooth tiger, and a giant star mobile made up of more than 30 smaller pieces that decorates the top of the tree.

Once the model selections have been made Joyce and Kawasaki begin finalizing the arrangement and their sketches for the tree. “Ultimately we look at the color, size, and texture,” Joyce explains. “We sketch to see how the models are going to fit together to give the tree depth and shape.”

With the final decisions made, after nearly a year of preparation, Joyce, Kawasaki, and the team have only four days to decorate the 13-foot tree before the crowds begin lining up the Monday before Thanksgiving. “It’s a long process but it’s a labor of love,” Joyce says. “In the end it’s all worth it to see the kids and adults light up when they see the tree year after year.”