Holidays in the ‘Burgh

Pittsburgh needs your 50-foot Christmas tree. (Reminder: It’s August.)

This gift doesn’t fit under the tree. It is the tree.

Here were some creepy mice (from "The Nutcracker") at last year's Christmas tree lighting at the City-County Building.

Here were some creepy mice (from "The Nutcracker") at last year's Christmas tree lighting at the City-County Building.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
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It’s never too early to start talking holidays, especially when your job is finding a massive Douglas fir — or related evergreen species — to anchor Pittsburgh’s Downtown Christmas display.

And so, on Tuesday, no less than four months out from Kris Kringle’s annual nocturnal slink, Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works put out a call for tree donations.

Candidates must be 40 to 50 feet tall, evergreen, and, this goes without saying, sufficiently robust. (The last thing the city wants is a repeat of what happened in Reading in 2014.) They must also belong to you, which should also go without saying.

Lisa Ceoffe, the city forester of Pittsburgh, said it’s a tradition here to rely on residents to provide the Christmas tree that adorns the City-County Building portico Downtown. She also described an exhaustive search process that begins in late summer (i.e. now) and continues until the week before Thanksgiving.

Here are the highlights:

  • Want to donate your tree? Call 412-665-3625.
  • Those calls begin coming in soon after the need is announced and sometimes before. Ceoffe said the city receives somewhere between 5 and 7 calls in a typical year. “If we get 10 this year, that would be doing really good.”
  • When those calls start coming in, officials begin their vetting of the coniferous candidates using Google Earth and then first-hand windshield surveys. In doing so, they must also survey their surroundings as the tree will need to be removed, put on a flatbed truck by a crane and driven Downtown, all while avoiding utility lines and similar obstructions. This means a forgiving street grid is a plus.
  • Additionally, there is no such thing as a perfect tree, so the process almost always involves harvesting multiple trees: the 40 to 50 foot centerpiece and other, smaller trees that will be chopped up and used to fill in the main one in an elaborate composite.
  • Winning trees are cut the morning of installation, which usually takes place in November, shortly before Thanksgiving.
  • Almost every single city department has a hand in the process, including the police department, which helps usher the tree to its final destination, city parks, which helps to decorate and plan the big reveal, and public works, which helps to electrify the tree. (You can watch last year’s tree lighting ceremony here.)

“It’s a lot of work,” Ceoffe said, sounding like every parent who’s ever opted for a real tree over a fake one.

“But I’m just glad we were able to continue this tradition. I think it’s great that the city carries on this tradition of having a real tree. Because sooner or later it’s probably going to be a hologram.”

Want some more? Explore other Holidays in the ‘Burgh stories.

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Lisa Ceoffe