Hoisting The City’s holiday spirit

For eight decades, a white fir grew on the hushed slopes of Mount Shasta. Starting Friday, it will star in a show that tens of thousands will see as they pass through San Francisco’s busy Union Square.

For the 20th year, Macy’s has erected a tree in front of its store for the holidays, in part to draw shoppers and in part to help raise funds for the UC San Francisco Children’s Hospital.

On Friday, the tree will be officially lit before an audience of thousands. San Francisco Giants pitcher Barry Zito will be on hand for the lighting, as will “American Idol” singer Anoop Desai.

What some of the ceremony’s attendees may not realize is that the tree has taken weeks to arrive in its current condition.

After being plucked from the snowy slopes of the Trinity-Shasta mountain range, the towering tree arrived in San Francisco on Monday in a five-axle semi. The trailer is a low-bed — just 18 inches off the ground — so the 85-foot-tall conifer and its branches wouldn’t exceed California’s height limit for freeway driving. The tree spent that day and most of the night in a lot in The City’s southern waterfront. About 2 a.m., it began the journey through the sleepy streets of The City.

By 2:35 a.m., the tree had arrived in Union Square, where it was lifted from the bed of the trailer by a crane and guided into a shallow hole in the pavement on the square. For hours, the crew worked to secure the tree and ensure it was precisely plumb.

During the next few days, tree farmer James Carlton hand- trimmed the tree to conform to its idyllic, conical shape and branches were added to “plug” bare spots. Once the tree was the right shape, power lines were strung up it and the lighting process began. Finally, decorations were added.

Though Friday will mark the official lighting of the tree, Carlton said that from the day it arrived in the square, the conifer has been inspiring the holiday spirit.

“It never ceases to amaze me that the spirit of Christmas starts affecting people as soon as they see the tree go up,” he said. “You get locals that have been coming here for years, and it’s like this Christmas tree is theirs. They take it personal. You can see the joy and happiness in their voices and faces. It never gets old.”


Family roots entwined in holiday

It’s not uncommon for kids who grow up in the mountains to go out with their families and chop down their own Christmas trees each year.

But when James Carlton was about 10 years old, his father took him up into the mountains and together they chopped down hundreds of Christmas trees.

His father, a career railroad man with an entrepreneurial spirit, had begun taking his vacation from the railroad in the fall so he could harvest Christmas trees. It was a way to spend more time in the mountains he loved, and also a way to make a little extra cash before the holidays. By the time Carlton’s younger brother was old enough to help, they started working as a family unit, all three spending their weekends and evenings harvesting trees.

Little did they know that 40 years later they’d be spending their Novembers high up in cranes, hand-trimming trees eight stories high and admired by tens of thousands.

For 20 years, Carlton and his family have been providing Union Square with its famous Christmas trees. This year, their trees will also grace Ghirardelli Square, Pier 39, Jack London Square in Oakland and the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, among other locations.

The Carltons had been harvesting about 20,000 “small trees” a year before, ahem, branching out into the large-tree business. Now, they focus almost all their tree-growing acumen on massive pines that need specialized pruning and care, and very careful transport hundreds of miles from their native slopes.

Since the Christmas tree season slows down after the holidays, Carlton Enterprises has grown into other business niches, like providing CalFire with specialized forest fire-fighting equipment in dry summers.

But Carlton, whose 82-year-old father still harvests trees, said he considers tree growing his life’s work.

“It’s been an absolutely fantastic and rewarding journey,” he said.

— Katie Worth

If You Go

Macy’s 20th annual Tree Lighting Ceremony

When: The event is held the day after Thanksgiving from 6 to 6:30 p.m.

Where: Union Square, San Francisco

Who: San Francisco Giants pitcher Barry Zito will attend the ceremony on behalf of the UCSF Children’s Hospital; “American Idol” singer Anoop Desai will attend the festivities as well

Donations: For $5, donors can sponsor a light on the tree, with money going to Children’s Hospital programs and services; to do so, visit www.ucsfhealth.org/tree or call (415) 353-2199 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays

Holiday transit


BART (www.bart.gov): Operating today under Sunday schedule (trains begin at 8 a.m.); regular daily schedule Friday

Muni (www.sfmuni.com): Operating today under Sunday schedule; regular daily schedule Friday

Caltrain (www.caltrain.com): Operating today under Sunday schedule; modified Saturday schedule Friday

SamTrans (www.samtrans.com): Only routes KX, 110, 112, 120, 121, 122, 130, 280, 281, 390, 391, 292, 294, 296, 297 and 397 will be in operation, and they will run on a Sunday schedule


Parking: Parking meters will not be enforced today, but will be enforced Friday; residential permits will not be enforced today or Friday

Street sweeping: Not in effect today, but is in effect Friday

Open/closed: Most city services will be closed today and Friday; check www.sfgov.org for a specific service

Postal service: None today; normal service Friday

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