Bay Area/ San Francisco/ Community & Society
Published on December 10, 2020
Giant cypress tree at Golden Gate Park still done up for Christmas, despite pandemicImage: Shalaco / Hoodline

The beginning of December brought Golden Gate Park an illuminated LED forest light-and-sculpture project called “Entwined,” a new reason to stroll in the park and bask in some holiday glow. But the granddaddy of all Golden Pate Park holiday light displays is pretty lit this year too, as despite the pandemic, a tradition dating back to 1929 continues. The towering Monterey cypress tree at the eastern end of the park will be illuminated again starting Thursday night, kicking off its 91st year as San Francisco’s ‘official’ Christmas tree.

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SFGate just ran a lovely feature on “Uncle John’s Tree,” named as such in honor of famed horticulturist John McLaren, who planted and cultivated a staggering 155,000 trees in the park. McLaren Lodge, the SF Rec and Parks building that sits beside the tree, had been McLaren’’s mansion before he died in 1943. But the tree has been lit each year since 1929, by McLaren himself in its initial years, as a sort of spirit-lifter during the depths of the Great Depression. 

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Atlas Obscura adds the morbid but really interesting detail that it was McLaren’s deathbed wish that the tree be lit up every holiday season in perpetuity after he died. McLaren himself did not plant that tree, but the tree is believed to have been there since around 1880. Monterey cypress trees typically live for 250-300 years.

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According to Rec and Parks, there are 550 lights in the display, and the department has a special cherry picker that was modified specifically for this tree and display. In previous decades, scaffolding was built around the tree to put up the lights in a process that took three days.

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There will not be a grand lighting ceremony with the mayor this year, though the ‘Santa train’ is there, albeit a roped-off version. But it’s kind of a meaningful parallel with the tree’s origin. It was transformed into a Christmas tree for the Great Depression in 1929, and can help us cope with a great deal of depression in 2020.