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Then and Now: The Annual Tree Lighting Ceremony

Since the first bulb was lit on a Douglas Spruce on Christmas Eve in 1913, Chicago's Tree Lighting Ceremony has been a family favorite. Look back on nearly a century of trees and traditions in this month's "Then and Now" post.

Then, 1913

Chicago’s first municipal Christmas tree was lit in 1913 on Christmas Eve by Mayor Carter H. Harrison in Grant Park. The 35 foot tall Douglas Spruce seen in the 1913 photo was decorated with 600 multi-colored lights and topped with the Star of Bethlehem. This event started the wonderful Tree Lighting Ceremony tradition we now celebrate every year.

  • Chicago businessman P.J. Jordan donated a 35 foot tree to the city. He made the donation in memory of his late partner and friend, Captain Herman Schuenemann, who had died the year before when his ship sank on Lake Michigan while making its way to Chicago with its cargo of Christmas trees.
  • The official Chicago Christmas tree has varied in height from the 35 foot spruce used in 1913 to the 64 foot spruce used this year.
  • It was a cool, 29 degrees while the large crowd gathered, bands played and the entire crowd hummed and sang Christmas carols.
  • This photo was taken one month after The Great Lakes Storm of 1913 (The Big Blow). The storm has been said to have been the worst winter storm in the United States. Caused by two storm fronts over the Great Lakes, there were 90 mph winds that lasted 16 hours. This storm was also the same type, a November gale, which famously sank the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975.

Now, 2012

As shown in the photo, this year Mayor Rahm Emanuel lit the 64 foot, 12,000 pound Colorado Spruce adorned with 15,000 lights from Prospect Heights in Daily Plaza where the ceremony has been held since 1984.

  • The tree was donated by Barbara Theiszmann which was chosen from 25 submissions to the city. The tree had to be at least 55 feet tall, had to be a spruce or a fir and had to have a nice shape. She and her three grandchildren joined the Mayor in lighting the tree in Daily Plaza.
  • 2012 marks the fourth straight year Chicago is using a single tree rather than a series of smaller trees. This year, the 64 foot tree stood nine inches taller than the tree from the previous year.
  • The tree lighting ceremony shares the event with the Christkindlmarket which brings a cherished German and European tradition with international flair and local charm to Chicago.
  • Chicago's largest open-air Christmas festival was first held on Pioneer Court in 1996. By special invitation of Mayor Richard M. Daley, Christkindlmarket Chicago moved to Daley Plaza in 1997 and has become a staple event on the plaza ever since.

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