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How the dying ‘First Tree’ of Fresno's Christmas Tree Lane is helping save the tradition

Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado
The 'First Tree" of Christmas Tree Lane in Fresno, Calif. stands at the corner of Pontiac Way and Van Ness Boulevard. The tree created one of the largest Christmas traditions in the San Joaquin Valley, but it is also dying. Efforts were taken to preserve its legacy as the event reached its 100th year.

FRESNO, Calif. — Every year, Fresno’s Christmas Tree Lane draws roughly 300,000 people to see two million lights decorating a two-mile stretch of Van Ness Boulevard. It’s one of Fresno’s oldest and most beloved civic traditions, and this year, celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Most of the festivities on the lane remain largely the same as they were decades ago. Santa still smiles and waves at passing people. Homes put out large Christmas displays in their front yards. Colorful lights hang from the mature deodar cedars that line both sides of the street.

But as the lane begins its second century, one very important feature of Christmas Tree Lane is changing. The celebrated tree where the tradition began in 1920 - known today as the “First Tree” - is dying.

No one knows if it will survive long enough to see another year of the holiday celebration. However, thanks to the efforts of everyone from homeowners to tree scientists, the history and legacy of the “First Tree'' is poised to live on.

Saving the ‘First Tree’

The short version of the history of the lane is posted to a sign on the “First Tree” – a deodar cedar at the corner of Van Ness Boulevard and Pontiac Way. It says a mother decorated the tree in 1920 to honor her son who had died in a home accident. In the following years, more and more of the deodar cedar trees that lined the street were decorated, and the tradition was born.

The event went dark only twice — during World War II and during the energy crisis of 1973. It continues today despite a pandemic that has scaled back “walk night” events that draw large crowds. Now attendees retreat to their cars to slowly drive the lane to look at the light displays in the trees and front yards.

Patt Rank, a resident of the Old Fig Garden neighborhood and a member of the Legacy Tree Team, said the Old Fig Garden community is one deeply rooted in its trees.

“It’s all about the trees,” she said.

So when the “First Tree” began showing gradual signs of struggling in the past few years, it alarmed neighbors. Recent efforts were taken to cut some limbs and save any live branches from the dying ones. But that disturbed neighbors even more. Some thought the tree was coming down altogether.

The “First Tree” stands in front of a home owned by Greg and Dana Pratt, who had also become concerned about its future. They took it upon themselves to ensure the tree would live to see the 100th anniversary of the event it helped create.

After the limb-cutting proved ineffective, the couple heard from a company called AgroNatural Sciences that specializes in plant growth. Around 2020, the company offered a bacterial solution that promotes growth in plants and trees. That resulted in some growth. But the Pratts wanted to take it a step further by actually cloning the tree.

They found a solution at a nursery in Oregon, that uses a chemical to spawn roots from a living part of a mature tree - essentially cloning the mother evergreen.

The Pratts sent 150 living pieces of the “First Tree” to the nursery, with hopes that they would grow into baby trees. Along the way, some were lost, but most survived. Today 100 juvenile deodar cedars from that batch are being monitored at Belmont Nursery in Fresno. All are genetically-identical to the “First Tree.”

Gregg Pratt
Cloned deodar cedar trees are being monitored at Belmont Nursery in Fresno, Calif.

Saving a tradition

The Pratts are contributing to a tree culture in the central Fresno neighborhood that is even older than Christmas Tree Lane itself.

In the early 1900s, real estate developer J.C. Forkner envisioned the Old Fig Garden community in Fresno to be all about trees and large homes. Along with encouraging homeowners to grow fig trees for profit, he planted specific trees on the different streets. Van Ness Boulevard got the deodar cedars. Today, the Old Fig Garden community is known for its mature urban forest because of the variety of trees.

The Legacy Tree Team has already planted young trees in places where some have fallen or died. Tree loss is common on Van Ness Boulevard. Wind and a warmer climate have affected the trees, even though deodar cedars are hearty and can live long lives. The Legacy Tree Team volunteers have planted 26 new deodar cedars in the last two years.

With these small trees slowly being planted in the coming years, Rank sees rebirth of a tradition.

“The future of Christmas Tree Lane is now safe because of what [the Pratts] did for us. And this was a process. This wasn’t easy,” Rank said. “When you think about it, it’s really pretty profound, it really is, that this couple went to this extent to give us this incredible gift.”

Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado
A young deodar cedar tree stands in front of a home on Van Ness Boulevard in Fresno, Calif. The tree will grow to form part of the annual Christmas Tree Lane tradition.

Mona Nyandoro, the CEO of Tree Fresno, an organization that works to provide trees in communities in the San Joaquin Valley, said the cloning of deodars creates a lasting mission for residents.

“This project connects the past, present, and the future of Christmas Tree Lane,” Nyandoro said. “I can say with certainty that these trees will be loved and cared for by the homeowners and greater community as they provide beauty, shade and tremendous environmental benefits.”

Dean Alexander, who runs Christmas Tree Lane, said Christmas Tree Lane provided a place to go during the pandemic when everyone was sheltering from COVID-19 at home. The pandemic did not stop the event, although it did prevent people from walking through the lane.

Caring for the trees is indeed crucial to maintaining the tradition, Alexander said. When he moved into his home on Van Ness Boulevard, there were small deodar cedar trees that had just been planted. Today, his home is one of the final attractions for sight-seers, and the trees are fully grown.

“It’s phenomenal. These trees are beautiful and we try to keep planting them if they die or something happens,” Alexander said. “We try to keep planting them because we want to keep that tradition alive. As long as we keep planting the trees, we’ll have a 200-year anniversary of Christmas Tree Lane.”

The meaning of Christmas Tree Lane

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Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado
Brian Sharp, dressed as Santa Claus, greets a family during a night of Christmas Tree Lane in Fresno, Calif. The event is in its 100th year.

On the lane on a recent night, Brian Sharp dressed in a red outfit, with a leather, fur lined coat and a set of jingle bells hanging from his waist. Kids ask him if his white beard is real. Here, he is Santa Claus.

Like the deodar cedar trees at Christmas time, Sharp has one mission: put a smile on the faces that pass him by. On a recent night, his brother and his mom were approaching Sharp with a group of people in a large carriage. He excitedly called out to his mom – who reminded him to stay in character.

“Hey mom!” Sharp said. “It’s not mom! I’m married to Mr. Claus,” Sharp’s mom responded. “Oh, really!” Sharp shot back.

Some people on the lane ask Santa for presents, others want pictures with him. These interactions are what makes standing in the cold for hours worth it. Last year, Sharp said, a little girl walking with her parents let go of their hand and ran to him.

“I leaned down and she just leaped on my arms. I know she wasn’t putting her arms around me. She was putting her arms around ‘Santa,’” Sharp said

Other interactions have made him sad. Once, he said, a family carried a sick dog in the back seat of their car. It was the dog’s last trip to see the lights. The family wanted Santa to talk to him. Another year, a man drove through the lane all by himself. Seeing the light displays was an annual tradition for him and his wife. But she had passed away. He was continuing the tradition alone. Those stories break his heart, Sharp said.

But they are a poignant reminder that while Christmas Tree Lane began as a memorial, it soon became much more than that. It was a celebration of the joy that Christmas brings to people. “People sometimes think this lane was designed out of grief or sorrow, but when I look back at those one hundred years, it’s brought so much joy to this community that I consider it having been truly designed because of the love of a mother,” Rank said. "It was about love."

As the “First Tree” nears its own eventual death, it stands tall for one more Christmas.

Soon the cloned deodar cedar trees will be the ones to continue the tradition, even after the mother tree is gone. For Sharp, this means his job as Santa is not over.

“I don’t think there can be a happier thing I could be doing,” he said.

Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado is KVPR's News Director. Prior to joining the station's news department in 2022, he was a reporter for PBS NewsHour and The Fresno Bee.