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What’s the story behind San Francisco’s official holiday tree?

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This nearly 140-year-old Golden Gate Park cypress gets its halls decked every year

On Tuesday, San Franciscans will gather for the 90th annual lighting of the city’s official holiday tree. But wait—which tree is San Francisco’s official tree for the holiday season? It’s neither the 50-foot-tall noble fir outside City Hall nor the 83-foot-tall behemoth in Union Square.

The city’s official Christmas tree is a cypress on the edge of Golden Gate Park at 501 Stanyan Street, illuminated with rows of vertical lights that create an oval shape around the spherical giant.

But why this tree instead of others in arguably more prominent locations? Without further ado, some illuminating history about the tree and its nearly century-old tradition:

  • The tree in question is a Monterey cypress, planted around 1880. According to the SF Botanical Garden, such trees are very common in San Francisco thanks to the city’s traditionally cool temperatures. They grow fast and flourish particularly in Golden Gate Park, living up to approximately 285 years.
  • William Hammond Hall, the engineer who designed Golden Gate Park, planted hundreds of thousands of trees to beautify the area in the late 19th century, most likely including this one; it’s difficult to place which trees are the work of nature and which were marks of Hall.
  • The city credits its annual Christmas tradition to John McLaren, Hall’s successor and namesake of John McLaren Park. According to SF Recreation and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg, McLaren added lights to the park in 1929 not only to this one tree but to dozens of them along a one-mile stretch of Fell Street. The city continues to light up this one tree every year in his memory. City honchos sometimes refer to the cypress as “Uncle John’s tree,” noted for its proximity to his historic home, now known as McLaren Lodge.
  • McLaren performed that initial 1929 Christmas lights spectacle at the behest of the Outdoor Christmas Tree Association of California, a circa-1926 group that quested to get “a lighted outdoor Christmas tree for every home” in California. A Healdsburg Tribune story from 1937 credits the original inspiration to a bedridden San Francisco boy who delighted at seeing Christmas lights every year.
  • The Digital Journal notes that although electric Christmas tree lights date to the 1880s, the city didn’t start using them until 1930, which would mean that McLaren’s first outing used traditional candles instead—fire hazards notwithstanding. These days the city dangles a total of 550 lights from its boughs.

Although McLaren’s beloved cypress is no longer the most prominent or famous tree during the holiday season, the venerable cypress at the foot of the Panhandle has the deepest roots and thus maintains both its annual traditional lighting and designation as the city’s official favorite.