Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
From Rome to Baltimore, the quality of the municipal Christmas tree can expose a city’s deeper failures.
A toilet brush. A plucked chicken. A disgrace.
When the Christmas tree installed in front of Rome’s Piazza Venezia was revealed in December 2017, it was described as all of the above. Not magical, but “mangy.” Not beautiful, but “bald.” (In Italian, Spelacchio, which translates into either modifier, became the tree’s nickname.) The 65-foot spruce was impressively tall, as state-sponsored trees are supposed to be, but barren of needles in many places; it drooped sadly, as if hexed by a family of holiday-hating elves. A week before Christmas, it was pronounced dead. Rome’s tree was, in a word, bad. And the Romans noticed.
“Rome’s tree is dry, dead on arrival,” a local wrote on Twitter last year, according to The Guardian. “It’s a metaphor for the state of the capital.”
Getting your shit together by the holidays has always been one of the many intangible ways of proving that an institution, whether a municipality or a family, is running functionally. (As a kid, did your tree go up right after Thanksgiving, or somewhere around the 20th? Yep.) It takes a bit of money, foresight, and logistical coordination to get it right. So while nailing the holiday decorations may seem trivial in the face of fixing larger issues that plague a city (in Rome’s case, an economy in crisis and garbage-filled streets), poor arboreal performance just makes everything else seem worse.
Tim O’Connor, the executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association, frames this a bit more positively: “Even if you’re in a difficult time, Christmas and the tree are one of those things that can move people’s thoughts and spirit away from something that isn’t the most pleasant,” he said. “The holiday brings families together; it’s joy and celebration. That’s the magic of Christmas—and the tree becomes the central figure in the story.”
As Charlie Brown learned, however, screwing up the tree can be a springboard to bigger problems. “There’s a lot of flexibility,” O’Connor says, before launching into a laundry list of National Christmas Tree Association-approved municipal tree specifications. It has to be real, not fake. It has to be in a central, easily accessible location. And it has to be big enough to avoid being overshadowed by buildings, or other trees. (O’Connor’s house has three.)
Rome’s 2017 tree debacle happened to check a bunch of the local incompetency boxes—an investigation revealed that the city had blown €50,000 transporting Spelacchio from a forest near Austria, more than 400 miles away, and that, besides being ugly, it had been sick from the start. The episode also had the misfortune of corresponding with a particularly dysfunctional period in the Eternal City’s history. But cities worldwide have long had to deal with the fallout from similar coniferous fails.
Take Reading, Pennsylvania’s 2014 tree: An American Baldy, if you will. Sparse and limp like Rome’s, the 50-foot tree was the city’s second-choice spruce, after the city was prevented from harvesting its favorite because of wet grounds. Its festive topping was a pretzel. Locals deemed it “one of the saddest Christmas trees of all time.”
The spectacle was especially damning in Pennsylvania, home to 1,400 Christmas tree farms that together cover 49 acres of land: The state ranks fourth in Christmas tree production and Christmas tree-production-dedicated acreage in the country. A million Christmas trees harvested a year, and still, Reading’s was trash! “Everybody that took part in bringing this tree here should get fired,” one man fumed, according to CBS News.
Karma, it seems, did end up coming for the city leaders responsible, who were perhaps too distracted by doing crimes to focus on holiday prep: Then-mayor Vaughn Spencer was arrested soon after for bribing the city council president, Francis Acosta, who in 2016 told CBS News that the moral of the Bad Tree Situation was “the importance of Christmas, of being together.” Acosta spent last Christmas in minimum-security prison; Spencer was found guilty on nine counts of bribery, and will get his sentencing in the New Year.
In a heartwarming holiday twist, the Reading tree’s infamy saved it from a similar fate: The city worker charged with removing and disposing of it instead turned it into a pine bench. “[T]here's just no way that we could run this tree through a chipper after everything was said and done,” Luke Schultz told CBS News. The bench still sits today in City Hall.
Sometimes, the pressure to deliver ends up pushing local leaders to extreme lengths. For at least a decade, Baltimore, Maryland has solicited its annual Christmas tree as a donation from private donors. But this year, as the December tree-lighting ceremony loomed, the city hadn’t yet gotten their gift. So the Recreation and Parks Department was dispatched to a city park to cut down a live tree. “There was a need to have a cut tree in front of City Hall, but it was hard to find one this year,” Baltimore arborist Erik Dihle told the local news site Baltimore Brew. “Even though a real effort was made.”
This didn’t sit well in a city that has been making efforts to expand its urban tree canopy. People cried murder. “The mayor and her hatchet men!” wrote one angry Facebook commenter. (The city promises to plant a replacement next year.)
In Paris, there was a notorious “Butt Plug” tree—artist Paul McCarthy’s 2014 modern art installation that was destroyed almost immediately by conservative vandals. (It was a powerful political statement, but objectively, not a great tree.)
But it’s the U.K. that seems to truly embrace the spectacle of municipal holiday decorating mishaps. Across Britain, competition for the title of the nation’s worst tree is stiff: Stockton-on-tee’s was depressing; Mottram’s was embarrassing; Streatham’s wasn’t a tree at all. In Mier, the tree was once literally “a load of rubbish,” constructed out of plastic bags collected by school children. Cornwall’s 2017 fake tree had to be taken down after climbers ripped electric wires from its taut frame. It was a learning experience, though: This year, Cornwall’s tree is real.
2017 vs. 2018 in Camborne. From the fake tree dubbed ‘Britain’s worst Christmas tree’ to a glorious one that I think could be amongst the best! Watch @itvwestcountry to see what locals make of it 🎄 pic.twitter.com/ZlDcXRncB5— Grace Pascoe (@grace_pascoe) November 24, 2018
But sometimes, “bad” is just in the eye of the beholder. What’s always bothered me about New York’s Rockefeller Center tree—which has been of the Norway spruce variety every year since 1978—isn’t its aesthetics. It is full-needled, deeply green, and, crucially, thick. For all intents and purposes, it is a perfect Christmas Tree. But knowing that it used to be green and thick and alive in its natural habitat (this year’s is from Wallkill, New York) before someone took an axe to it and hauled it into the big city, only to be poked and prodded with lights and ogled … it makes me very sad.
But perhaps it shouldn’t. Real Christmas trees are actually better for the environment than fake ones, according to the Sierra Club; and O’Connor reminds me that chopping the things down is all part of the circle of life: “There are often small trees growing nearby that will flourish once the big tree isn’t taking up all the sunlight and the moisture,” he says. The ritual is about maximizing celebration in the city, even for the many families that don’t celebrate Christmas religiously.
This December, Rome was under some pressure to make amends. Armed with a $400,000 (!) grant from Netflix, which sponsored the tree, the city’s mayor, Virginia Raggi, promised to deliver something not-cursed. Against all odds, the 75-foot red fir that arrived appeared to be worse: It was hacked into several pieces and spewing sap.
The people promptly nicknamed it Spezzacchio—Italian for “broken.”
But maybe it just needed a little love. Spezzacchio was reassembled, and Netflix decorated it with hundreds of silver-and-red ornaments—some marked by the streaming service’s trademark N,” as the New York Times reported. (The sponsoring company also constructed a “platform for selfies.”) On Saturday, at the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the tree’s 60,000 LEDs were lit and a children’s choir sang carols. Broken no more, the tree earned a new moniker: Speraggio, for hope.