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A Look At The 106-Year Tradition Of The Chicago Tree-Lighting Ceremony

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The tradition of an official Chicago Christmas tree and lighting ceremony goes back more than a century, but only in the past four years has it involved a single large tree mounted in Millennium Park.

The city's first tree was a 35-foot spruce, and was lit in Grant Park by Mayor Carter H. Harrison.

As the Glessner House website notes, the original tree was the Municipal Christmas Festival Association, headed up by longtime Art Institute of Chicago president Charles R. Hutchinson. A group of artists that included renowned sculptor Lorado Taft was among the group that assisted in the Christmas festival effort, the Glessner House noted.

Organizers set up a large site in Grant Park north of the Art Institute at Monroe Street which was named the Court of Honor. A single large tree was set up with a series of arches and smaller trees behind it, the Glessner House noted.

That first tree was donated by F.J. Jordan, an associate of Capt. Herman Scheunemann – whose Rouse Simmons Chicago Christmas Tree Ship had gone down in Lake Michigan in 1912.

The Glessner House website reproduced a Dec. 20, 1913 quote from Jordan in the Chicago Tribune: "This is the best gift I could give to the city. I have watched this old tree grow for many years. Many times I was tempted to bring it to some rich family. But it didn't seem quite right to the poor girl and poor boy, who had no tree at all. Now it belongs to the city, and rich and poor alike may enjoy it."

When it was time to light the tree, Mayor Harrison pushed a button that lit up 600 multicolored bulbs and a star at the peak. The Glessner House website noted that a crowd of about 100,000 was in attendance and "cheered lustily."

1913 Tree Lighting
The first Chicago tree-lighting ceremony in 1913. (Credit: City of Chicago)

The tradition of mounting the tree in Grant Park continued for more than 40 years. In 1956, for Mayor Richard J. Daley's second Christmas in office, the single tree morphed into a complex conical stack of many smaller trees.

That first stack of trees was 70 feet tall and decorated with about 4,400 lights and 2,000 ornaments. It was mounted at Michigan Avenue and what was then Congress Parkway on the Grant Park tree platform.

In 1966, the tree and its lighting ceremony were moved to Daley Plaza – then known as Civic Center Plaza. The Chicago Picasso sculpture was not yet standing alongside the treat the time – it was not unveiled until August 1967.

In 1982, the tree and lighting ceremony were moved again – this time to State Street and Wacker Drive – but that was only for one year. It was back in Daley Plaza in 1983.

In 1991, Mayor Richard M. Daley asked the Department of Streets and Sanitation to find one large transplantable tree that would be mounted and then transplanted into a city park after the holidays. But the largest tree they could find was 35 feet tall – not tall enough for Daley Plaza, according to the city's website.

Thus, the assembly of multiple trees into a giant mega-tree continued. By 2008, there were 113 individual trees involved.

But that same year, a report by CBS 2 Investigator Pam Zekman showed the city paid more than $300,000 for city workers to build the frame, decorate the tree, and dismantle it over the course of six weeks.

Following Zekman's report, the city decided to scrap the compound tree for a single one for the first time in more than half a century. That first tree was donated by the Weivoda family of Palos Heights.

Another big change came in 2015, when the tree and lighting ceremony were moved again for the first time in decades – this time to Millennium Park. The tree-lighting ceremony is now held at Michigan Avenue and Washington Street, just two blocks north of where the inaugural festival was held in 1913.

This year's official Christmas tree will be a 55-foot blue spruce donated by Gene Nelson of Elgin and his family. Nelson said he and his wife have been trying to get rid of the tree, because it has outgrown their front yard, and even took over the neighbors' yard, but they didn't want to simply cut it down.

The tree lighting event begins at 6 p.m. on Nov. 22, with the actual lighting at 6:30 p.m.

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