I always felt a little guilty about Christmas trees. I like the fun of trimming and the magic of colored lights in the living room, but a real tree cut down and put on life support in my house for a month before I toss it out on the corner seems wrong and wasteful.
An old friend Kris Lyons and I used to play a game to spot the last dead Christmas tree of the New Year. I think the latest either of us got with that 1990s competition was a day in March.
Last year, I found the real record breaker. This beauty was put out on my block in November!
For a few years, Nancy and I picked up a live tree at Friends of the Urban Forest, but like many American families, our rich inheritance of ornaments easily overwhelmed any bony fern pine seedling. Our sunk cost in glass balls and dangling cartoon characters pushed us back to Clancy’s lot at 7th Avenue and Lawton Street for a sturdy chopped-down Noble fir.
Tree-chopping also bugged a San Franciscan named Clarence “Sandy” F. Pratt. Almost a century ago, he formed the Outdoor Christmas Tree Association to advocate for decorating and illuminating living trees. Pratt and his group were responding to the one-upmanship of cities seeking the biggest trees to cut and truck to public sites for holiday lighting.
San Francisco, with the help of the Examiner newspaper, went particularly overboard in 1927. A 120-foot-tall fir from Mendocino County was sliced in half, denuded of all its branches, and carted up to Twin Peaks in pine-needled piles by a caravan of trucks. Public works and park employees “rebuilt” the tree at a promontory still named Christmas Tree Point by connecting the trunk halves together with an iron collar and drilling holes to reattach the branches.
Parks Department superintendent John McLaren oversaw the addition of extra boughs to “fluff out” the fir. Nature was further improved upon with colored streamers, three thousand lights, ornaments, giant metal candles, and fake snow. Thirty floodlights encircled the scene.
The decorations didn’t bother Sandy Pratt, who did up his own house at 80 El Verano Way in Monterey Heights by illuminating a large cypress in his front yard. But sacrificing large redwoods and pines from California’s forests to him was an abominable “slaughter of the innocents.”
A prominent businessman in the sand-and-gravel trade, Pratt knew how to mobilize. He launched a crusade that took hold of the state and dovetailed with a growing conservation movement.
In 1928, the two-year-old association held a large meeting at the Palace Hotel with representatives of forestry associations, women’s clubs, chambers of commerce, and park commissioners. State divisions and local chapters of the Outdoor Christmas Tree Association were overseen by Pratt in Northern California with Hollywood star Mary Pickford nominally in charge of the Southland.
In addition to saving large trees and preserving state forests, the Outdoor Christmas Tree Association sought to “advertise the state’s climate, teach children forestry and love for the outdoors, afford pleasure for all who see outdoor electrically lighted trees and bring back the old-fashioned family reunion at Christmas time.”
In response, the cities of Fresno and Roseville each planted a “Mile of Living Christmas Trees” on prominent streets. In San Francisco, Pratt and friends decorated a sixty-foot cypress in front of Shriner’s Hospital, now the Ivy retirement home, on 19th Avenue. (This was one of my favorites when I was a kid in the 1970s.)
Instead of propping up a cut tree on Twin Peaks, the city made the large Monterey Pine in front of Golden Gate Park’s McLaren Lodge the official city Christmas tree in 1931.
Pratt died in 1950. The association survived into the 1960s, but the arboreal focus faded in the glow of a new national industry: outdoor lighting and decorative products marketed to homeowners. Whole neighborhoods competed to out-Christmas rival communities with bulbs, nativity scenes, and plastic reindeer on house roofs.
In its last years of prominence, the Outdoor Christmas Tree Association awarded prizes for “outdoor Christmas illumination” contests. The importance of living trees survived only in the group’s name.
While the city of San Francisco still illuminates the tree in front of McLaren Lodge, it has no problem also using cut live trees for decoration. Here’s the Civic Center Plaza tree in front of City Hall.
Perhaps Pratt, protector of California’s forests, did have a small win here. The decorating crew told me the tree was trucked from Oregon.
Woody Beer and Egg Nog Fund
OK, I haven’t given up coffee, but I am a sucker for egg nog. I have a nutmeg problem I can’t kick. Thanks to all who make sure I get out and have a drink with someone. Let me know if you’re in town and I’ll buy you any kind of nog.
“Christmas Tree Saving Society of State Formed,” Sacramento Bee, December 15, 1927, pg. 13.
“Living Yule Tree Provided by Shriners,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 15, 1927, pg. 2.
“Campaign Planned to Save Redwoods,” Oakland Tribune, September 24, 1928, pg. 10.
“Mrs. Zumwalt is Delegate to Xmas Tree Ass’n Meet,” Tulare Advance-Register, September 25, 1928, pg. 2.
“Christmas Body will Boost State,” San Francisco Examiner, September 27, 1928, pg. 21.
“Tree Conservation Society is Formed,” Sacramento Bee, September 27, 1928, pg. 13.
“Examiner Christmas Lighting Award List,” San Francisco Examiner, January 6, 1963, pg. 2.
“Old Trees get the ax,” Roseville Press-Tribune, March 11, 1998, pg. 1.