This year’s holiday post looks back at once longtime tradition in Hugh Morton’s hometown of Wilmington. We hope it will bring back special holiday memories for many of our readers. The credit for writing this post goes to Jack Hilliard, with a little bit of filler from my keyboard including the lyrical pun for the title. For that you can blame me.
On Christmas eve 1928 in Wilmington, North Carolina, a new holiday event took place in Hilton Park opposite the city’s water works. At that time, at that place, “The World’s Largest Living Christmas Tree,”—a live oak believed to be 400 years old, between 75 and 100 feet tall (depending on where you measure) and 110 feet wide decorated with 450 colored lights—launched a Wilmington tradition that would span more than 80 years.
Wilmington’s living Christmas tree took root during the autumn of 1928 when James E. L. Wade, city commissioner of public works, staged a contest to select a favorite tree to be lighted. Two school kids chose that live oak in Hilton Park, and each kid was awarded a five dollar gold coin. From there, according to the Christmas Day edition of The Wilmington Morning Star, Wade “evolved the plan of a bigger community tree and attendant celebration than Wilmington had previously known.”
The Wilmington Morning Star Sunday edition published two days before Christmas noted that the extensive Christmas Eve program would include the singing of “thirteen beautiful carols,” and that the Atlantic Coast Line’s general office band would play many Christmas carols, too. Also planned for the program was a “Biblical sketch” by Mrs. A. M. Alderman “depicting the life of Christ from manger to the cross” and the appearance of Santa to “distribute hundreds of bags of candy, fruit, and toys.” WRBT would be broadcasting the entire program “providing officials of the broadcasting station have recovered from the influenza.”
Unfortunately, “Sickness among the city’s musically inclined and a light misting rain” curtailed the evening’s program at “the living community tree” to a reading of the nativity story by Mrs. Alderman, who “wore a robe of white satin.” The newspaper reported that “sickness among members of the various choirs that were to have had a part in the exercises and the Atlantic Coast Line General office band, coupled with too damp weather caused postponement of that part of the program that included the singing of carols.” Nonetheless, the wet weather “could not take the joy of the evening away from the hundreds of youngsters, boys and girls, who trudged to the end of Fourth street and every one of them received a stocking filled with candies, nuts, and fruit.” Some of the evening’s events were to be reschedule during the week, and others were to be delayed until New Years night when, the article stated, “all Wilmington is asked to assemble there and pledge their faith in and efforts toward a bigger and finer and better Wilmington.”
We don’t have any evidence that seven-year-old Hugh Morton was there for the first event, but he was often there during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Seven of his “World’s Largest Christmas Tree” scenes can be seen in the online collection, three of which are included in this blog post.
Here are a few quotes taken from the ‘Wilmington Outskirts’ section of Wilmington Through the Lens of Louis T. Moore by Susan Taylor Block that describe some of the early years of the living Christmas tree:
- The Christmas Eve 1929 edition of The Morning Star reported that “Hugh MacRae’s Tide Water Power Company furnished all labor, most of the wiring and 750 light globes for the tree.”
- “The moss in the tree, if it were carried away, would take three 2-ton trucks to do the work.”
- “In 1930, the giant Hilton Christmas tree was declared ‘the most beautiful of its kind in the state and nation’ by the National Federation of Women’s Clubs.”
- “On January 1, 1933, 5000 people gathered at the tree to hear ‘a program presented by African-American residents of the city.’ Participants from Williston High School Glee Club and St. Stephen’s, St. Luke’s and Central Baptist churches mesmerized the crowd; city fathers requested an encore performance the following evening.”
Susan Taylor Block was also there for the lighting ceremony often during the ‘50s and ‘60s. She recently shared some personal thoughts via email with me about how, as a little kid, she remembered the lighting ceremonies.
- “People spoke softly or not at all – even in the parking areas which were distanced a bit.
- “I think there was zero yelling or clapping. There was a reverence under the tree and around it.
- “There was something happy and exhilarating about being there – but there also was a touch of something that made my hair stand on end, too.
- “Every year, sometimes twice or 3 times, my father would drive my grandmother, mother, brother and me to see the Tree. . . Looking back again, I remember the glowing way the large Christmas lights lit portions of the hearty Spanish moss. Sometime carols playing softly in the background.
- “For me, it was a private quiet religious experience that I cannot put into words. I have not experienced that exact feeling anywhere else…”
With the exception of the World War II years, Wilmington staged the tree-lighting event every year since 1928. By 1959, it was reported that 150,000 people turned out for the ceremony. From 42 states and 11 foreign countries they all came to marvel at the light show and to hear a 400 member choir.
By 1990, the old tree was supporting about 7,000 lights, using almost 4 miles of 12-gauge wire. Eighty years of ice storms and the like took a tremendous toll on the old tree and the final lighting ceremony was held in 2009. Amy Beatty, the superintendent of recreation and downtown services for the city of Wilmington, indicated several decisions prompted the tree’s retirement. “The tree itself was ‘very compromised,’ with a number of branches toppled by storms. Officials decided it could no longer support the light display. Also, the rerouting of Martin Luther King Boulevard to connect with North Third Street and made the (neighboring) water plant difficult to reach. Post 9/11 guidelines from the U. S. Department of Homeland Security outlining greater protection for water-treatment facilities added to the logistical difficulties.” Susan Taylor Block added, “The tree itself was enormous and beautiful then. The Hilton area had been well-known for its beautiful oaks. Then the city put offices and a plant nearby – and the dominos began to slant. . . A new highway configuration now makes it difficult to even find where the tree used to be.”
Sadly, the old oak that was “The World’s Largest Living Christmas Tree” for more than eighty years was taken down in November 2015. And though the live oak may be gone, it will always be remembered by those who saw it there . . . in that place . . . during this time of year . . . as a Christmas tree.