How the 86-Foot-Tall Union Square Christmas Tree Is Built

As part of our series Bay Curious, we are answering questions from KQED listeners and readers. This one comes from Napala Pratini.


ebates around the break room at work can be weird and hit on a wide range of topics. For Napala Pratini and her co-workers, the subject of debate last Christmas was the 40-foot tree inside the Neiman Marcus store off Union Square, near their office in downtown San Francisco.

"How do they even get it in there?" she asked Bay Curious.

Theories abounded. Maybe it's assembled leaf by leaf. Maybe it's dropped in through a window with a crane. "Nobody had an answer," she said.

Well, it turns out the answer is that it's a little bit of both.

"We like to say the tree is made of magic, but the truth is, it's fake and is built over two nights," said Terri Mino, public relations manager for Neiman Marcus.

If you look closely, you might even see that magic getting built this week. A construction team comes into the store on the Monday before Thanksgiving, after the doors close, and assembles the steel frame of the Christmas tree. If you happen to visit Neiman Marcus on Tuesday, then you might see that frame before its branches and ornaments go on. Those are added on Tuesday night, again after the store's public hours.


The Neiman Marcus tree is the younger and smaller sibling of the 86-foot tree that's already up for the season in Union Square. While the Neiman Marcus tree is 20 years old -- though its ornaments and lights have changed in that time -- the Union Square tree has been going up since 1990.

(Because of liability concerns, we weren't allowed into the closed Neiman Marcus store to see the tree construction, but we were assured it is essentially the same process as the tree being built outside in the square.)

The tree inside Neiman Marcus is built the week of Thanksgiving.
The tree inside Neiman Marcus is built the week of Thanksgiving. (Drew Altizer/Courtesy of Neiman Marcus)

Both trees are now artificial, but that wasn't always the case.

For 25 years, Macy's has funded and erected the Christmas tree in Union Square. While there were years, such as in the 1920s, when a group of residents and businesses put up a tree in the square, that fell by the wayside for decades, particularly as the neighborhood went through a series of changes.

In 1983, the Union Square Association raised money to put up a tree for the holidays, but Macy's eventually took over when it appeared funding would dry up. It was originally conceived of as a seasonal attraction to help bring people to the area, as well as a "gift to the city." For many of those years, that massive tree was real. It meant that a team of people from Macy's used to travel up to the Carlton Christmas Trees farm near Mount Shasta four months earlier and pick out the perfect one.

Yes, that means they picked a Christmas tree in July for a November installation.

Once selected, the 80- to 90-foot-tall tree would be watched and groomed. There's a lot that goes into growing a Christmas tree, said James Carlton, owner of Carlton Christmas Trees: how much sunlight it gets, when and what kind of fertilizer is applied, and what side of the mountain it's on.

When the tree was ready to be cut and shipped to San Francisco, special equipment and cranes would bring it down off the mountain, ensuring that no limbs touched the ground since the weight of the giant trunk could break them. Special trucks then carried the tree to San Francisco in a contraption that kept all the weight off the branches and limbs, and the tree off the floor.

"The tree never touches the ground," said Carlton.

In 2011, that all changed.

Macy's opted to move to an artificial tree, according to a spokesperson, largely because it would be more environmentally friendly and reduce waste, allowing the company to reuse the tree each year.

Today, that artificial tree is 35,000 pounds, 86 feet high, and covered with 33,000 LED bulbs.

It also takes four days to install and assemble, said Carlton. On that last day, which this year was Nov. 5, the main middle part of the tree -- what he calls "the mothership" -- is put together and then the top is lifted by a 90-ton crane.

"I would compare it to a well-choreographed dance," said Carlton.

Lights and decorations are placed on the tree segments before they are stacked together.
Lights and decorations are placed on the tree segments before they are stacked together. (Alan Toth/KQED)

In total, it takes about 16 people to make that dance happen, whether they're on ornament duty or climbing the ladders inside the tree to install limbs. The ornaments and lights are mostly put in place with large wires while the tree's sections are still on the ground, before they're lifted into place.

Each of the limbs, built out of steel, is numbered and all the pieces fit together like building blocks (or a Bizarro-world version of Ikea furniture). Inside the 30-foot frame, the round steel tubing attaches to the square steel frame, with wiring and electrical components rigged. That inside doesn't look anything like a tree at all.

Seeing inside the tree is like seeing behind the scenes at Disneyland, says James Carlton, owner of Carlton Christmas Trees. (Alan Toth/KQED)
Seeing inside the tree is like seeing behind the scenes at Disneyland, says James Carlton, owner of Carlton Christmas Trees. (Alan Toth/KQED)

"It's certainly different than what you see outside," said Carlton. "It'd be like if you were at Disneyland and you went behind the scenes and saw the mechanics involved in making the magic happen."

While Christmas trees are something most of us think about only one month of the year, Carlton grew up on the tree farm, working on Christmas trees when he was just 5 years old. At this time of year, he's so busy with large installations, like this one, and smaller personal projects, that he doesn't always have time to put up his own Christmas tree. But, he said, he's happy to be a part of other people's holiday joy.

"It's been quite a responsibility," said Carlton.

Although the tree is already up, it's not quite ready yet for the thousands of people who will come to visit this holiday season. The annual tree lighting happens this Friday, Nov. 27, at 6 p.m. Jordin Sparks will perform, as will Vocal Rush from the Oakland School of the Arts and the Contra Costa Children’s Chorus. And, of course, Santa Claus will attend. (Santa will then move to Macy's Santaland, inside the store, until Christmas Eve -- when presumably he gets busy with other stuff.)

Workers use a crane to lift the final segment of the tree into place.
Workers use a crane to lift the final segment of the tree into place. (Alan Toth/KQED)

After Christmas, when no one wants a giant tree anymore, every ornament will be cleaned and put back in its own box, with the boxes numbered so that each ornament goes back in the same location next year. The limbs will be taken off the frame and the entire structure will get packaged and put away in low-humidity, climate-controlled storage containers at the tree farm, where it will wait until it's time to make some magic again next year.

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