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Sanger’s ‘marketing problem’: how to explain why it’s known as ‘The Nation’s Christmas Tree City’

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City of Sanger's emblem features the General Grant giant sequoia, the nation's Christmas tree.

It’s just before Christmas and there’s not a lot of stirring going on in downtown Sanger. It’s raining and the streets are fairly quiet.

The only obvious signs of the festive holiday are an artificial tree in the middle of the main intersection and holiday banners hanging from the lampposts.

For some, it might initially come as a surprise that Sanger is known as “The Nation’s Christmas Tree City.”

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Karen Pearson, President and CEO of the Sanger District Chamber of Commerce looks over archived documents of Sanger's national Christmas tree history.

It’s on the city’s emblem and in signage. I showed the slogan to Scott Hubbard who’s lived just outside of Sanger for the past three years.

“You've seen this?” I ask him. “Yeah off of 180,” he says. “You don't know what it means?” I say. “No, because I don't see any Christmas trees,” he says laughing.

Karen Pearson, President and CEO of the Sanger District Chamber of Commerce says there’s a reason for that. “We're not the Christmas tree(s) plural, city. We're the nation’s Christmas tree city, you know, singular,” she says.

That singular tree is the General Grant giant sequoia in Kings Canyon National Park, officially designated as the Nation’s Christmas Tree.

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A photo of Charles E. Lee, Sanger's Chamber of Commerce Secretary who wrote the tree designation letter to President Calvin Coolidge.

The story goes that in 1924, R.J. Senior and Charles E. Lee, both of the Sanger Chamber of Commerce, were wandering in the Grant Grove area of the park, when a little girl approached the General Grant tree. Pearson reads the story from there.

“After a moment of complete silence, she said, mostly to herself 'what a lovely Christmas tree that would be.' She then turned and ran off into the grove. They never learned her name, but they wouldn't forget her words.”

The following Christmas, Lee wrote to President Calvin Coolidge, suggesting the General Grant be adopted as the nation’s Christmas tree. It was made official in 1926 and an annual trek to the tree has been held ever since on the second Sunday in December.

This was the 96th year. A video by The Sanger Scene captured the festive event with bell ringers, carolers and a flag and memorial wreath laying ceremony. The tree is also the nation’s only living shrine to fallen service members.

“It's not just the little Sanger's Christmas tree. It's not Fresno County's Christmas tree. It's not California's Christmas tree. It's the entire nation's Christmas tree, like, that's huge, you know?!” Pearson says with excitement.

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Presidential letters sent to Sanger Chamber of Commerce.

Since the national designation in 1926, Sanger has received a presidential letter each year in honor of the commemoration.

“This is one of my favorites and this is the original,” Pearson says, carefully removing a letter out of a plastic casing. It’s signed by John F. Kennedy.

“It says, ‘you have my very best wishes for a joyous and successful Christmas service’,” Pearson reads from the letter.

Other presidential letters in the pile include those from Ronald Regan and Richard Nixon. This year’s letter came via email from President Biden.

“And it says, 'I send my warmest greetings to all those gathered at the Sanger District Chamber of Commerce's 90 - well he put the wrong year, 94th, it's the 96th,” Pearson laughs.

But despite the recognition, Pearson says getting the message out to the public is a bit of a challenge.

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A photo of the General Grant hangs in the Sanger Chamber of Commerce

“People think that we're supposed to have Christmas trees, like we grow Christmas trees and so it's a message that we're constantly trying to get out there.” Laughing, she says, “It is a marketing problem for the chamber of commerce.”

Sanger native Courtney Ramirez thinks there’s an easy solution. She fired off a recent tweet about it. She reads her tweet out loud.

“I am here again for my yearly rant. Why doesn't Sanger, CA lean into the Christmas tree thing all year long, at the very least, do a pop up ornament store in December. I know there's got to be an empty storefront on 7th street,” she reads.

Ramirez says she has a soft spot for small businesses and all things local. She says she wants to see her hometown take advantage of its claim to fame.

“I think it's just a natural branding that might be a little easy to lean into,” Ramirez says.

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A sapling of the General Grant is planted in Brehler Square in downtown Sanger.

Pearson says there are already major holiday events in December that draw crowds. There’s the Toyland Parade and a tree lighting ceremony in the center of town that harkens back to the nation’s official Christmas tree. It’s a sapling of the General Grant, gifted back in 1939.