When Christmas Went Outdoors

by Grady Johnson

Thirty-five years ago this Christmas, ten-year-old David Jonathan Sturgeon lay in bed in Denver, doomed to die. To cheer him, his father lit a small Christmas tree in his sickroom.

Young David pointed through the window at an evergreen growing on the front lawn, exclaiming, “Oh, Daddy, please put some lights on that tree, too. It would look wonderful.”

His father, David D. Sturgeon, operator of an electrical business, strung colored lights on the evergreen and David lay there smiling as he watched them sparkle like emeralds and rubies against their ermine mantle of snow.

The tree was the talk of the town. In horse-drawn carriages and chugging automobiles, people came from miles around to drive slowly past the Sturgeon home and admire the tree which Denverites proudly believe was the first lighted living Christmas tree in the land.

The Christmas after next, little David was dead. But neighbors, who had marveled at his tree, lit trees in their own yards and gardens, turning their section of town into a glittering fairyland. House by house, block by block, the idea spread; and through the years, more and more of these dazzling monuments to a dying boy’s wish appeared.

Eight years later, in San Francisco, another little boy was sick at Christmastime. Because the lad couldn’t see the family tree, Clarence F. “Sandy” Pratt painted some full-size light globes and strung them on a wire around an evergreen on his lawn across the street.

Like Denver’s tree, it attracted much attention. And before New Year’s Eve, the sick boy was well.

This so impressed Sandy Pratt that he resolved to spend the rest of his life persuading others not only to light living trees but to plant them. He organized the Outdoor Christmas Tree Association of California, and began sending two-year-old redwood seedlings to anyone who would promise to care for them and light them at Christmastime.

For a quarter of a century, Pratt spread the gospel of the living Christmas tree via radio, the press and lectures, and dug and shipped – for mailing charges only – redwood seedlings, which grow only along a narrow coastal strip stretching from California to Oregon, to people in nearly every city of the U.S., to soldiers in the South Pacific, Europe and the Holy Land.

Outdoor Christmas Tree

Today, in city parks, along highways, on dark and snow-drifted lawns alike, lighted living trees remind millions of the birth of Christ. In fact, there is probably no city or town in the nation without its Christmas Tree Lane in one form or another. Santa Cruz County, for instance, lights 25 miles of giant redwoods along the Pacific Coast, and Orange County, to the south, stages an annual contest lighting “Forty Miles of Christmas Shrines.”

While it is impossible to say exactly when and where the first outdoor tree was lit, to Sturgeon and Pratt at least must go credit for spreading the heartwarming custom. In December, 1945, NBC broadcast a tribute to Denver and to Sturgeon for originating it, with members of the family retelling the story of David’s idea. At the same time, from California’s Sequoia National Park, gray-haired, ruddy-faced Sandy Pratt was taking part in services broadcast from the General Sherman Redwood, the world’s largest tree, which was lit every year under Pratt’s sponsorship.

Until his death three years ago, at 75, Sandy could be found most any day with his shovel, buckets and wet sacks, digging, tagging and numbering his seedlings. He dug and shipped more than 14,000 and received hundreds of letters from people telling him how their trees were faring – some had grown 40 feet high. He grieved when one was reported dying, for he agreed wholeheartedly with Luther Bur-bank’s admonition upon seeing a trainload of logs pass.

“Do not build me a monument,” the great botanist told his wife in a choking voice. “Plant a tree!”

Today, there are thousands of living monuments to Sandy Pratt – and they were planted within his lifetime.

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