A drone, 6 decorating days, 3,000+ lights, and a 130-pound Liberty Bell topper: How Philadelphia’s Holiday Tree comes to life
Among the tallest the city has ever had, the nearly 7,000-pound tree requires far more prep than your standard Christmas tree...
The trees in Pennsylvania just aren’t big enough — not big enough for City Hall, says Lori Hayes, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation’s director of urban forestry.
So Hayes and her co-pilot, Parks and Rec’s deputy commissioner of operations, Susan Buck, set out on a road trip to Hornell, N.Y. Their mission: find a tree grand enough to grace the city’s center for the holiday season.
It was a warm day in September, months before “Jingle Bells” would ring out through the radio. Instead, they sang along to Fleetwood Mac and Carole King on the 5-hour drive to Yule Tree Farms. There, they’d scour fields of towering white firs, Norway spruces, and white pines in search of the perfect tree.
This was the second year in a row they had ended up at the 2,000-acre plantation in New York. “To be honest, the Art Museum uses this farm, and their tree is wonderful every year,” says Hayes. “We were getting trees from Pennsylvania close to 35 feet tall. And City Hall administration wanted bigger.”
This year’s winning evergreen was a 50-year-old concolor fir, now standing 55 feet high on the north side of City Hall. It’s among the tallest the city has ever had for the holidays.
For most of the 26-year-long holiday tradition, trees were obtained through donations by Philadelphia residents. For this one, which would be delivered by flatbed truck 10 days out from Thanksgiving, that September scouting trip was just the beginning.
“It’s almost like shopping, where you go back and forth, back and forth, between several choices before you can make a decision — only you’re traipsing through a meadow of grass that goes hip high,” Hayes says of picking out the tree.
To assess each option, Hayes looks at uniformity, color, and the dominant leader, the highest branch, where the topper — a 130-pound Liberty Bell — will be placed. To help with the process, Hayes had not only Buck’s extra set of eyes, but a drone flying above the canopy to procure an overhead look.
“Finally, we found the one. It’s a really full tree,” says Hayes, pausing before declaring it a “huggable specimen."
While debatably cuddlesome, the nearly 7,000-pound tree is certainly hearty, the kind of holiday spectacle that can’t simply get tied to the roof of a car and sent off on its way. Instead, in mid-November, the tree was hoisted by crane onto a trailer marked “oversize load” and escorted to Philadelphia.
It’s at this point each year that Proof Productions steps in to dress the city tree in its holiday best. First step: moving the tree by crane into a 40,000-pound custom steel base, a delicate, hour-long ordeal.
The base was designed several years ago by David Korins, best known as set designer for Hamilton and an Emmy winner for Fox’s Grease: Live. It’s decorated with images of the city skyline, and icons like Independence Hall and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It also plays a round-the-clock soundtrack of holiday classics, this year featuring artists like Ariana Grande, NSYNC, and Whitney Houston.
Decorating takes six days, with a crew working up to 60 hours total, weather permitting. The 2-foot-tall Liberty Bell goes up first. Steel cables, running from bell to base of the tree, secure it into place, preventing any accidents that could cause a second crack.
Next, workers begin to secure the remaining ornaments. Some move up and down in cherry-picker cranes, while others climb the actual tree. The ornaments are hung not on the tree’s branches but from custom-built steel frames bolted into the trunk. Some are heavy enough to challenge a bodybuilder.
“The challenge [of arranging the ornaments] is to fill in any gaps between branches. It’s like if you have a bad tattoo and you want to cover it up,” says Proof Productions president Steve McEntee.
The lights get hung last — more than 3,000 of them. This, too, is a calculated process.
“We don’t just go out there and haphazardly string everything up. It’s all based off of a 3D model rendering we create on the computer,” notes McEntee. “With a tree of this size, you need a road map.”
On Wednesday, after countless hours of planning and literal heavy lifting, the light switch will flip on to officially bring the tree to life. Hundreds of people, including Mayor Jim Kenney and several musical performers, will gather for the ceremony.
“It might seem like a lot of work for a tree, but it’s something that brings joy to people every day as they walk by. It’s really fulfilling to be a part of,” says Proof Productions rigger and fabricator John Chasmar.
Adding color to a sea of beige buildings, the festive spectacle will glow day and night through the New Year. After spending a few weeks as the backdrop in hundreds of photos, it’ll be recycled to serve a new purpose: wood chips.