Ah, the smell of pine needles in the air, the twinkling of lights, and the sounds of carols playing softly — it can only mean one thing: Christmas is here! And what better way to celebrate than by looking at the largest Christmas tree ever? So, grab a cup of hot cocoa, settle into your favorite chair, and let’s get started!
The Largest Christmas Tree Ever
The story of the largest Christmas tree ever starts with the Northgate Shopping Center in Washington. In the early 1950s, the Northgate Center was just getting on its feet. The problem, however, was that this shopping center was a new, modern type of shopping experience. In addition, it was built just north of Seattle’s city limits at the time. It was a revolutionary and ambitious project — the first designated suburban “shopping mall” in the United States.
At the time, however, the public typically went to downtown Seattle to shop. No big retailers like Nordstrom wanted to take a chance on an out-of-the-way structure so far from downtown. Because of this, Northgate was really struggling to fill its empty shops.
The president of the Northgate Company, Jim Douglas, was not willing to be deterred by this. Known for helping launch other legacies like the World’s Fair and SeaFair, Douglas set out to save the Northgate Center — with the help of a Christmas tree.
An Unusual and Festive Solution
Douglas knew that Christmas was the best time of year for major shopping. During the holiday season, stores had nearly two and a half times more sales. He was confident that the Northgate Center would survive if he could get people to his mall during the holiday season. He just needed a huge Christmas tree — the world’s biggest.
At the time, “the world’s biggest” contests were quite popular in Washington (i.e., the biggest pumpkin, the biggest strawberry, etc.). Another Washington city held the record for the world’s largest Christmas tree. The city of Bellingham had claimed the title for the past two years. In 1948 they had a 134-foot Christmas tree and a 154-foot-tall tree in 1949.
But Douglas didn’t want to just find the largest Christmas tree ever — he wanted to break the record and keep it for years to come. So, he sent Charles Beech out into the forests of Washington to find the perfect tree. After examining 1,000 different trees, Beech chose a Douglas fir tree (Pseudotsuga menziesii). He found it about 30 miles east of the city of Enumclaw.
Depending on the source, the tree was either 212 feet tall or 221 feet tall. It was estimated to be around 286 to 287 years old and weighed around 50,000 pounds! The tree was so tall that its lower branches were rather sparse, as no sunlight could reach them. Now they just had to figure out how to get this massive evergreen back to Northgate.
A Tree Fit for Paul Bunyan
This was the first time anyone had attempted something of this scale. So, Douglas and his team had to devise their plan as they went along. They loaded the top part of the tree in the back of a large truck trailer, with the bottom in a second truck trailer. This left the middle of the tree stretched out along the road. It took an entire day to carefully cut down the tree and remove most of its branches to make it easier to transport back to Northgate.
The soon-to-be Northgate Christmas tree traveled in style. On its 70-mile trek back to the mall, it was led by a police escort. The arduous journey took three days, traversing woodlands, hills, and sharp turns. Sometimes the tree would slip and bang against the road or drag on the ground as the trucks climbed up and down the small roads.
With the help of local authorities and civilians, the tree made it to Northgate in one piece — but the most challenging stretch of the trek was actually getting the tree to the mall itself. The tree was simply too tall to make the turn into Northgate. They had to get a crane and several workers to help. The truck trailers just about flipped over, and it took three or four hours working in the cold rain, but ultimately, they got the tree to the mall in one piece!
Prepping The Tree
Now that the tree was secured at the Northgate Mall, the team got to work reassembling the branches they had cut off. Logging crews were brought in to wire and nail several hundred limbs back onto the tree, along with more from five or six other trees, to help fill it out like a rather festive Frankenstein. To keep the towering tree upright and steady. They also installed heavy guide wires in four directions to keep it stabilized.
The new evergreen was decorated with over 3,500 Christmas lights and some flashing red warning lights at the very top to alert airplanes of its presence. The tree had so many lights that it required a separate electrical generator. The shopping center couldn’t power its own lights and the tree simultaneously.
And just when they thought they were through the worst of it, one of the biggest windstorms of the decade passed through Northgate. The 60 miles-per-hour winds threatened to tear down the newly secured tree — but somehow, the tree stood its ground. Although many branches and lights had to be repaired and replaced after the storm, the tree was ready for the public shortly before Thanksgiving. It was lit on November 24, 1950.
The Northgate Christmas Tree Miracle
Douglas alerted news and media outlets about Northgate’s unusual Christmas decoration. When the tree was lit for the holiday season, people from all over the country traveled to the Northgate Shopping Center to see it — and, of course, to enjoy some Christmas shopping! This gave Northgate’s vendors the exposure they needed to become established and put the mall on the map. In fact, the 200,000-square-foot mall had enough parking for around 750 cars, but it was not nearly enough for all its new customers.
However, the biggest turning point for the business was when Life Magazine, one of the most prominent and popular news outlets in America, decided to run a story about the Northgate Christmas tree. Just two weeks before Christmas, the magazine spotlighted the tree, including two large photos of it en route to the shopping mall. With such high-profile publicity, the future of the Northgate Mall was now secure.
Douglas predicted that this unique Christmas tree undertaking would cost around three thousand dollars, but he was sorely mistaken. In fact, the entire enterprise ended up costing 10 times the Northgate Company’s original budget — about 27,000 dollars! (Which would be the equivalent of around 300,000 dollars in 2021).
It was an extremely high risk and could have ended the Northgate Company and Shopping Center, but in the end, it was well worth the price. Northgate’s ginormous Christmas tree was a Christmas miracle that saved the company. And over half a century later, it continues to hold the world record for the largest Christmas Tree Ever.
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- Guinness World Records, Available here: https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/77271-tallest-christmas-tree#:~:text=The%20world's%20tallest%20cut%20Christmas,%2C%20USA%2C%20in%20December%201950.
- History Link, Available here: https://www.historylink.org/File/2289