Back to Arts

Let there be light

Tacoma's historic tree lighting ceremony celebrates its 66th year

Tacoma lights its tree this year Nov. 26. Photo credit: Chip Van Gilder

Recommend Article
Total Recommendations (0)
Clip Article Email Article Print Article Share Article

You may never have ventured out to the Tacoma Tree Lighting ceremony. You may not even know there is such a ceremony.

But there is! Now in its 66th year, the annual tree lighting ceremony has been part of Tacoma's history since 1945, rising out of ceremonies dating back to the early 1900s.

Each year, Tacoma positions a huge Christmas tree at Ninth and Broadway. Nearly every year, the tree is gifted to the city by Fort Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis-McChord). These trees have stood through good times and bad - the Great Depression, WWII, Vietnam, energy crises and previous recessions included. Perhaps the tree can help to reassure us that these tough economic times will not last forever either.

Tacoma's very first community tree was located in Wright Park in 1916, and many followed in this location. It wasn't until 1945 that the first tree went up at Ninth and Broadway.

According to an article in The News Tribune from 1945, before WWII electricity was cheap and many households decorated the trees in their yards. But during the war, the Northwest was within range of Japanese bombs, and lit trees might as well have been bull's eyes for bombers. So when the city put up not just a tree, but a gigantic tree, refusing to let the war stop Tacoma from celebrating the holidays, it became a beacon of hope and renewal.

"It's important to think back to 1945 when the country had been through four years of war," says David Fischer, executive director of the Broadway Center, which currently heads up the tree ceremony. "There was just a lot of emotion going on. Fort Lewis and Tacoma had formed a partnership and a bond. Out of that relationship and that history, the community and Fort Lewis focused on this symbol of giving and thanks."

Back in the post-World War II days, downtown Tacoma was a very different place - a place where businesses filled every building.

During the 1950s and 60s, the annual Christmas tree's height - typically hovering around and above 100 feet - was often the focus of local news articles. The Tacoma tree was even mentioned on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1954 as very possibly the tallest tree in the nation. Today, the trees tend to be a bit shorter - around 60 feet. About 10 feet of the tree always goes into a hole in the ground so it won't tip over.

Tree ceremonies of yore were highlighted by musical performances, speeches by local dignitaries and parades - traditions that continued even until recent times. Santa arrived at the end of the parade and often threw the switch to light the tree. The parade was quite the to-do for about 25 years, until it fizzled in 2005.

The tree has dealt with plenty of challenges over the years, often budget related. In 1952, a power shortage almost meant the tree had no lights, with the Junior Chamber of Commerce offering to spray the tree with aluminum paint to make it shiny. At least one tree in 1958 struggled with people stealing its light bulbs.

Challenges have also been par for the course even getting the tree from JBLM to the site.

"It takes about eight people and a crane and a huge truck with a sling on it to run at midnight on I-5 to avoid traffic delays," says Fischer. "Then begins about a week-long decorating effort. That is a partnership with Tacoma Public Utilities, the Fire Department and the Department of Public Works."

Phyllis Harrison, owner of The Art Stop and LeRoy Jewelers, has been involved with the parade and chaired the tree lighting committee since 1997. She's seen a few mishaps during her tree tenure.

"The driver of the transport vehicle goes over the underpasses on the freeway to clear the branches," she explains. "One year, a new driver didn't know that and drove straight through. When the tree arrived in Tacoma, half the branches were sheared off. Another year, the selected tree turned out to have live munitions in it, so we had to select another."

After many changes in the lighting used on the tree over the years, in 2010 the city went green with a new low-energy lighting system. Instead of parades, newer ceremonies are held indoors at the Broadway Center. This year, there will be a showing of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and hot chocolate, cider and treats in the lobby afterward. Santa will also be there, of course.

Tacoma Tree Lighting Ceremony

Saturday, Nov. 26, 6 p.m., free
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at 2 p.m. with treats afterward, $14
Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma

comments powered by Disqus

Site Search