For famed SF tree, every twig counts

There is no such thing as a perfect tree, but James Carlton works hard to make it look that way.

Carlton, tree farmer with Carlton Christmas Trees LLC, and his team of workers are behind the 80-foot-tall, 30-foot-wide tree in Union Square that — to the untrained eye — looks perfect. It gets that way, however, after weeks of preparations.

“No tree is perfect,” Carlton said. “They all have a little bit of character.”

The first step in creating “perfect” is picking the right tree. This year, Union Square will be dazzled by a white fir, known as the Cadillac of Christmas trees, according to Carlton.

“It grows denser the older and taller they are,” he said. “The density makes it ideal for commercial trees.”

Carlton knows the “perfect” tree just by the look of it. And he should; his family has been in the tree business for 40-plus years. His 86-year-old father still helps with the harvest, he said.

Though the white fir is denser than most trees, it’s still not enough for Union Square standards. Once the tree reaches San Francisco, Carlton and his team spend weeks plumping up the woody perennial for the holidays.

The snow and wind that the trees endure for nearly two decades before harvesting bend tree tips and branches, Carlton said; they’re straightened using rods and wires. The branches themselves are cut from the base and sealed off with a preservative to hold in the moisture. This helps them survive as long as two months, Carlton said, adding that the tree grows by 40 percent.

“It’s a critical process,” he said of the sealing. “Without it, they won’t last.”

His team also plugs extra branches from another fir tree to fill the holes and make the tree more robust. The process of plumping can take as many as seven days.

Thousands of lights are then placed on the tree the week before Thanksgiving.

After all this work is preparation for the famous shopping day — Black Friday — when some 7,000 people visit Union Square for the tree lighting, which many see as the symbolic start of the holiday season.

Merchants in Union Square are hopeful that along with the crowds will come a better holiday shopping season than recent years, according to Linda Mjellem, executive director of the Union Square Business Improvement Association.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” she said. “For some, business is already picking up.”

In addition to the work by Carlton and his crew in the main square, Mjellem said the improvement district has added lights around tree trunks and light posts to give the area more of a holiday a feel despite the warmer-than-usual weather in the weeks leading up to the tree lighting.

“Things are starting to brighten up,” she said. “I just like to admire it all.”

Carlton too said he enjoys the delight of visitors coming to see the tree.

“The Christmas spirit is never more so evident than when folks come to the Square,” Carlton said. “They’re from all walks of life. It’s most rewarding when smiles light up on people’s faces — it’s the uniqueness of this holiday. Words can’t describe it.”


O Christmas tree  

  • 80 Feet tall
  • 30 Feet wide
  • 20 Years old
  • 1,500 Ornaments
  • 14 Days to assemble


Courageous child to serve as Santa’s helper

When Santa Claus flips the switch at Friday’s tree-lighting celebration in Union Square, he’ll be joined by a 15-month-old who wasn’t expected to make it to the holidays.

Benjamin Ganding suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta — a disease that makes his bones extremely brittle.

According to his mother Janet, doctors gave him a prognosis of less than one year of life; he’s surpassed that by months.

His brittle bones receive fractures with every touch. Janet Ganding said she was only just able to place her son on her chest last month, the first time since his birth.

To join this year’s celebration, he’ll need to be carried onstage in pillows.

Though he has passed his life expectancy, Benjamin is still in pain. He’s had seven surgeries in his young life and his family has made sacrifices, including moving from Loma Linda to Sacramento to be near his hospital — the UC San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital — and the comfort care, known as Compass Care, they can provide him.

Compass Care is the beneficiary of sponsored lights on the Macy’s Union Square tree. A $5 donation will supply the Comfort Care program with funds to buy toys for sick children and support groups for families like Benjamin’s, among many other benefits. The entire program is offered free to families.

As much as $900,000 has been given to Compass Care in the  seven years Macy’s has sponsored the program.



Macy’s tree lighting ceremony

  • When: 6 p.m. Friday
  • Where: Union Square
  • Why: Kick off the holiday season
  • Who’ll be there: Singer and actress Katharine McPhee; The Glide Ensemble; SF Boys’ Chorus; UC Berkeley Men’s Octet; cast members from “Shrek the Musical”; and pitcher Barry Zito of the World Series champion Giants.

Source: Macy’s