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Unwrapping the 106-year history of Chicago’s Christmas tree lighting tradition

Surprising facts about the urban holiday celebration

A brightly lit Christmas tree in a city park at night.
Chicago’s Christmas tree in Millennium Park
Getty Images

Hark! The lighting ceremony of Chicago’s official Christmas tree is coming soon.

A single 55-foot blue spruce donated by Gene Nelson of Elgin will be lit during an Nov. 22 event that starts at 6 p.m. in Millennium Park and involves South African singer-songwriter Jonathan Butler, a nine-member Latino Mariachi band, and—yes—rapping elves.

It’s a city tradition that has evolved greatly over the last century. Here are some historical highlights you may not know:

Chicago’s first Christmas tree was lit in 1913

The idea for the municipal Christmas tree was first floated 106 years ago by the Municipal Christmas Festival Association headed by Charles L. Hutchinson, then president of the Art Institute, according to the Glessner House website.

The tree was the gift of an associate of Herman Scheunemann, captain of a ship known as “the Christmas Tree Ship” that sunk during a Lake Michigan storm in 1912. The tree was placed on 40-foot poles and studded with smaller trees.

At exactly 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve of 1913, Mayor Carter H. Harrison Jr. arrived at the north end of Grant Park with a squadron of twelve mounted buglers from the Illinois National Guard acting as escorts. Harrison pushed a button to illuminate the 600 multi-colored bulbs on the 35-foot Douglas Spruce and a huge star of Bethlehem at its apex. The crowd, estimated at 100,000, reportedly “cheered lustily.”

Following the lighting of the tree, a band played a “Salute to the Nations”—a medley of national anthems and a trumpet fanfare was heard from the balcony of the Chicago Athletic Association.

A vintage black and white photo of a crowd near a Christmas tree.
The first-ever municipal tree from 1913.
Courtesy of the City of Chicago

The rise and fall of the Voltron trees

Not content with sticking to one single natural tree, Chicago’s 1956 tree mounted on the Grant Park tree platform at Congress Parkway and Michigan Avenue was actually a 70-foot-tall mammoth constructed from many smaller trees. It was decorated with 4,400 lights and more than 2,000 ornaments.

Combining many trees into one big one is a tradition that has continued for almost half a century. By 2008, there were 113 individual trees grafted together to create the official Chicago tree. But after a news report revealed that the city paid $300,000 to build, decorate, and dismantle it—the city opted to go back to the single tree system.

The great Christmas tree migration

The tree lighting ceremony originally started in Grant Park, but was moved to Civic Center Plaza, (now Daley Plaza) in December 1966. The location was changed to State Street and Wacker Drive during the Jane Byrne administration in 1982 but returned to Daley Plaza the following year.

Then in 2015, the tree went on the move again—this time to Millennium Park. It’s current location, near Washington Street and Michigan Avenue, is about two blocks from the location of the first ceremony in 1913.