The massive cultural touchstone defined the holiday season in Wilmington for more than 80 years
For the majority of the 20th century, the holiday season didn’t arrive in Wilmington until the World’s Largest Living Christmas Tree was lit.
Beginning in 1928, the massive live oak shined bright from its perch in what used to be Hilton Park on the north side of Wilmington, where some historians estimate it stood for more than 300 years.
But this was no ordinary community Christmas tree. Its age certainly garnered it some attention, but its size is what drew crowds of thousands each year and earned it the world-renowned title.
The tree stood a whopping 75 feet tall and its branches stretched so wide, it measured to 210 feet at its widest. It was such a mammoth tree, cranes had to be used to decorate it every year.
When it was first lit in 1928, the city dressed the tree in an estimated 750 lights and a good helping of Spanish moss. The finishing touch was the simmering star carefully placed atop its tallest branch – nicknamed the Star of the East.
Unlike the towering trees that anchor Christmas in cultural epicenters like New York City and Washington D.C., Wilmington’s tree wasn’t shipped in from a purposefully chosen supplier. This tree was rooted, quite literally, in the Cape Fear. It was a living piece of the region.
The grand celebration of lighting it in 1928 caught on, becoming a tradition that persisted for more than 80 years, except for a four-year period during World War II. As much as the Christmas spirit was desperately needed during the global conflict, the resources and the enthusiasm just weren’t there.
Living The Port City Life: Our free weekly email newsletter has the news and notes to live your best life. But that absence certainly made the heart grow fonder. In 1946, when it was announced the tree would be illuminated once again, the rousing excitement drew Fox Movietone news cameras to cover the lighting ceremony for a national audience. Wilmington showed up in full force, with every one of the city’s church choirs joining together and 40 Santas in attendance.
After its major reintroduction, the tree only grew in prominence and light count every year. By 1959, the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce reported it was draped with 4,500 lights and five tons of Spanish moss and tinsel. At its brightest, the tree held 7,000 lights.
Its annual audience had also grown to more than 100,000 visitors in 1959.
But after years of lights strung through its branches and moss weighting on its fragile limbs, the tree began to show its advanced age.
By the end of the millennium, the tree had shrunken to less than 50 feet tall and around 75 feet wide. Some groups advocated for its retirement, while others sought to have it torn down.
Eventually, both groups got their wish. Christmas 2012 became the first time the tree wasn’t lit since 1946. In 2015, the tree was pulled from its roots. In its final days, some believe it was more than 400 years old.
With time, holiday traditions change and begin to serve different purposes for different people. But for the better part of a century, Wilmington had a shared tradition – to gather under the branches of the World’s Largest Living Christmas Tree and celebrate the season as a community.