The picture in this article is of Rich’s Great Tree. The lighting of the Great Tree in Atlanta was the beginning of all things holiday. Everyone watched on TV or went downtown to see the annual phenomena. Time magazine featured it on the cover of December, 1961. It was a world impressing event.
The tradition began in 1948. An Eastern White Pine at least 70 feet to 90 feet tall would be selected each year for Rich’s event. Television coverage of the tree being felled and transported to Atlanta was on the news coverage. We would see the cranes lifting the tree from the street to rooftop some eight floors above.
Once in place, the decorating would begin. Balls five feet in diameter would hung with huge ropes of garland and lights. The top star had to be 10 feet tall and shown like it was leading all of us to Bethlehem or Holiday shopping nirvana. The tree could be seen for miles.
Parents and children would walk through Santa’s Workshop on the way to visit with Santa Claus. Inside the store, was "Santa's Secret Shop" which was off-limits to the adults. The "spirit of Christmas" started at the street level with animated window displays. Moving mannequin handing out gifts, trains transported them to other windows, dancing couples, and angels playing violins. It was magical.
The roof top home for Santa would be opened for children in awe of the great man. Eight reindeer would live on that roof top from Thanksgiving to the day after Christmas. A miniature suspended monorail “flew" from the ceiling of the toy department, outside the building to a rooftop Christmas village that surrounded the Great Tree. The original Pink Pig was named Priscilla. A second pig, named Percival was later added to meet the high demand to ride the pig. After completing their journey, riders received a sticker that said "I rode the Pink Pig.” I still have one of the prized stickers.
On Thanksgiving, crowds would start to assemble in the streets. TV personalities would begin the countdown. The four floors of the Crystal Bridge would gleam with local choirs, decked in robes and best voices. There were eight choral groups performing. Each would be featured for a few minutes. Christmas carols could be heard all over Atlanta. A local celebrity would read the Christmas Story as anticipation of the moment built.
There were hours of entertainment this night with the music and lights. But suddenly, all was still. All was silent. Someone threw the switch. The entire city of Atlanta and through the state through their TVs would let out a mighty “OOOOOHHHHH--AAAAHHHH.”
And it was OOOHHH and AAAHHH inspiriting. The dark sky lit up and the Great Tree shown with a magnificence not to be seen for another year.
Alas, neither Rich’s nor The Great Tree exist anymore. Several moves to other store locations were tried. It was never the same. And now the “Great Tree” is a much smaller artificial one. It has lost it greatest. Somehow for those of us of a certain age this dims our excitement of the season’s start. Anyone can put up a tree and put glittering balls and lights on it. Only Rich’s could have a 70 to 90 ft. beacon of the season.
Stores do not decorate for the Holidays as they once did. I guess it is too expensive or offensive to someone. It isn’t as exciting to visit the Malls and see the holiday beauty, because there really isn’t a lot of lovely, spirited decorations.
No matter the décor, welcome to the holiday season and the tying up of all those loose ends of the year. We have so much for which to be grateful. We all can get lost in the demands of the season.
Take a minute. Make a gratitude list. List everything from the smallest to the largest. Now this is hard part. Make a list of those people you need to forgive. Oh yeah, include yourself. Be grateful and be gracious to yourself and others.
I am grateful I saw Rich’s Great Tree many times. My best friend and I never missed the occasion. I remember it with fondest and that wonderful childhood memory brings a glow to my heart. I wish you could share one of the Great Tree lightings with you.
Hold your memories dear and your dear ones close.
This is something my son told me one day when we were discussing Christmas and if he would be eligible for presents or a sack of switches. “‘Tis the season and Santa knows if you have been naughty or nice.” I said. “Well, I have been naughty, but at least I was nice about it. I told you before I did it.” Replied my honest little boy.
(Rich’s Department Store opened in 1867 and was dominate retail center over the southeastern United State.)