Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
Some have traveled from the Great White North, others are annually unearthed from the back of a semi-truck.
It may not quite be Thanksgiving yet, but some of the nation’s biggest Christmas trees are already towering over some of the nation’s largest cities. Pop singer and American Idol alum Jordin Sparks has already presided over the lighting of Atlanta’s major tree, the one that sits on the top of Lenox Square’s Macy’s department store in Buckhead. That happened Sunday, November 22. Holiday creep is alive and well and living in Georgia.
The Christmas conifers of the American metropolis often hide secret histories, ones that bristle with politics and intrigue (but mostly heart-warming holiday cheer).
A controversy in Atlanta
In Atlanta, for example, the traditional Great Tree lived at the downtown Rich’s department store until it underwent a move and a name change in 2005, when Rich’s became Macy’s and the tree was relocated to a suburb. Then, in 2013, another change: Atlanta’s premier holiday tree is no longer an eastern white pine annually handpicked by department store officials. It is an environmentally friendly alternative—a reusable, 56-foot artificial tree, crafted by the local Christmas Lights, Etc.
“[W]e always knew the stories behind [the Christmas trees], how they were part of some family for generations out in the country, how they gave it to Atlanta for our joy,” a newscaster solemnly intoned of the switch in 2013. “Our heads tell us it’s probably a smart thing to do, but our hearts...”
An eco-tree grows in SF
Macy’s also handles the majordomo of trees in San Francisco, the one that sits in busy Union Square. This woody Christmas installation is much like its cousin in Atlanta, in that it, too, is fake. But in San Francisco, the local news gives this a notably different cast: the city is home to the “eco-friendly” tree, one that will celebrate its fifth holiday season this year.
The 83-foot poseur has plastic branches and a gigantic metal hoop skirt infrastructure, which is continually recoated with rustproof paint. The whole thing, the San Francisco Chronicle reports, takes six full days to assemble. Cranes are involved, as are “thousands” of safety clamps.
Still, for all its Silicon Valley-esque efficiency, the eco-tree still hearkens back to the days of yore. The local family that used to donate real, live trees from the northern California’s Mt. Shasta now looks after the reusable one.
SF locals should look out for the lighting of the Union Square eco-tree on November 27. It also features Jordin Sparks.
A long, peaceful journey to a divided capital
Has a tree ever quested like the 2015 People’s Tree, which arrived in Washington, D.C., on November 20? The 74-foot Lutz Spruce is a native of Chugach National Forest in Moose Pass, Alaska. This journeyman traveled an astounding 3,410.94 miles by sea and truck before arriving on Capitol Hill’s West Lawn.
Selected out of thousands for its ideal height and perfect conical shape, this tree is a perfect specimen, says Ted Bechtol, superintendent of the Capitol grounds, who complimented its “straight stem, uniform branching, natural density and...good rich color.”
More on the schlep from the Great North: The People’s Tree was in excellent hands, driven by John Schank, the 2014 Alaska Trucking Association’s Driver of the Year. What’s more, as part of its national duties, the traveling tree made numerous stops throughout the country, making headlines from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Missoula, Montana, to Chillicothe, Ohio.
Stay tuned for the December 2 tree lighting ceremony, featuring none other than Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Rep. Ryan has yet to ask the social media savvy spruce—something of a migrant!—to take a side in the immigration debate.
A quiet adolescence in upstate New York
One might not expect the 78-foot tree that looms over New York City’s Rockefeller Center to tell a moving tale of more pastoral beginnings. But that’s exactly what 62-year-old Albert Asendorf has done on behalf of the Norway spruce, to the New York Post:
”[The branches] went all the way to the ground, so you could get inside and hide,” says Asendorf, now 62 and a retired maintenance worker. He and his older sister Diane could easily climb the tree (“It was like a ladder,” he says), though their mother, Gertrude, hated when they’d come into the house covered in sap.
“You’d hear the tree whistling in the wind in the wintertime, the birds in there,” Asendorf recalls. His father loved the tree so much, the family had the patriarch’s tombstone inscribed with a little spruce and birds after he died in 1997.
This year, Asendorf officially entered the Gardiner, New York, tree as a prospective city ornament.
“We enjoyed it all this time, now everyone else can enjoy it,” Asendorf said. “It’s going out in style.”
Tens of thousands of people are expected to attend the New York City tree lighting on December 2. Then, after the tree’s service is up, it will go onto an even bigger and better second life, as the structure of a Habitat for Humanity-built house. Another section will be given back to Asendorf, who says he wants to transform it into “an end table or a bench for his home.”
A semi-truck of one’s own
Another reusable artificial tree, this one in Orlando, Florida. This 72-foot one will be lit during an elaborate ceremony December 4, featuring Mayor Buddy Dyer, a holiday concert from a local performing arts group, copious food trucks, and 88,000 animated lights.
The real interesting stuff, however, occurs in the off season, when the tree lives in a semi-truck in the city’s Parks Department yard. The truck “was provided to us when we purchased the tree,” says a city spokesman. Hey, at least it’s in the land of sunshine.
And elsewhere in Florida, a Festivus for the rest of us
No Christmas, no problem! In Tallahassee, a 2013 Nativity display inside Florida’s Capitol building inspired free speech activist Chaz Stevens to construct his own holiday monument: a Festivus Pole for the rest of us, a monument to inclusion and Seinfeld.
Because the Capitol’s rotunda is a “public forum,” Florida was forced to give the display its stamp of approval. The ACLU made sure of it. “This is about separation of church and state," Stevens told NPR after installing a pole composed of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans.
This year, Stevens has something even more special planned. The Tallahassee Festivus Pole 2015 will be covered in the rainbow colors of the Pride flag, and topped with a very fancy disco ball. Happy Holidays to all, indeed.