Macy's new Union Square Christmas tree is fake but fab

The giant Christmas tree in Union Square is extra green this year — so green that it’s artificial.

The evergreen that dazzles holiday shoppers was not cut down in a forest. Instead, the 83-foot Southern beauty that Macy’s bought came from a company in Georgia. Assembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle, the faux fir will be the star of Macy’s 22nd annual Great Tree Lighting Ceremony tonight.

“This tree is perfect,” said Larry Hashbarger, Macy’s director of special productions. “I think most people are probably going to think it’s a real tree.”

Switching to a reusable tree makes sense philosophically, he said, especially in one of the greenest cities in the nation.

“Even with all the years of real trees, people would come up to me all the time and say, ‘Is that a real tree?’”

It took four days and a lot of planning to erect the steel-framed tree, which was assembled in sections and then bolted together. The faux fir weighs 26,000 pounds — about the same as a live tree the same size. The cost ran “well into the six figures,” Hashbarger said.

Holiday revelers looking for extra bling won’t be disappointed. This year’s tree has 10,000 more lights than last year’s. More than 30,000 are LED energy-efficient bulbs that sparkle on the tree’s 17,000 branches, along with hundreds of red and gold ornaments.

The installation of the tree was masterminded by the team of Macy’s designers that creates the floats for the store’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. The team also made the 6-foot-tall red star at the top of the tree in Union Square.

One challenge the designers won’t face is how to spruce up a live tree that is a bit thin on one side. Hashbarger says workers used to spend a week “plugging the tree” — drilling holes in the trunk and adding hundreds of branches to fill in the bare spots.

The tree-lighting ceremony starts at 6 p.m. Besides Santa, visitors can enjoy music from Glide Ensemble and the UC Men’s Octet.

Olympic figure skating star Johnny Weir will perform on the rink to “Ave Maria,” sung by students from the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts.

“It’s really about families and kids and giving them wonderful holiday memories,” Hashbarger said. “This is our gift to San Francisco.”

The tree will stay lit 24 hours a day until after New Year’s. Then, it will be disassembled, packed up in several shipping containers and put into storage until next year.

Letters, toy ducks benefit ailing children

Holiday shoppers in town for Macy’s tree-lighting ceremony at Union Square have plenty of other ways to share the magic of Christmas.

Children can stop by any Macy’s store nationwide and write letters to Santa. The “Believe” campaign was inspired by a letter a little girl wrote to a newspaper editor in 1897 asking if Santa really existed. The editor’s reply included the now famous line, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

For every letter to Santa posted in one of Macy’s special in-store mailboxes, Macy’s will donate $1 to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, up to $1 million. The foundation serves children with life-threatening medical conditions.

Macy’s shoppers also can help children in need by buying plush Aflac ducks. All proceeds from the sales of the toys in Macy’s Bay Area stores will benefit the UC San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital.

The 180-bed facility is one of the country’s leading hospitals for children. It has more than 100 pediatric experts in specialties such as cancer care and urology.

“We’re pleased that the Aflac duck is able to help children battling cancer at UCSF and other hospitals across the country,” Aflac spokeswoman Laura Kane said. Aflac is the largest provider of supplemental insurance in the nation.

The Aflac Holiday Duck Program, now in its 11th year, has raised nearly $3 million to support the research and treatment of childhood cancer. This year’s ducks are wearing plaid scarves and matching hats with earflaps and come in two sizes. The 6-inch duck sells for $10, and the 10-inch duck sells for $15.



Countdown to Christmas

The lighting of the Macy’s tree in Union Square is San Francisco’s kickoff to the holiday season. Today’s events begin with performances at 6 p.m., with the tree lighting around 6:35 p.m. Highlights of the show will include:

  • Glide Ensemble
  • Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts
  • Figure skater Johnny Weir
  • UC Men’s Octet and Dr. Seuss’ “The Grinch”
  • Santa Claus
  • Presentation of the tree
  • Tree lighting
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