“[The] Emperor’s noble idea became a beautiful reality. The tallest fir tree ever seen in San Francisco was put up in the center of Union Square, and with its long ropes of tinsel, and its thousands of candles, it made an impressive and a lovely sight.”San Francisco’s Emperor Norton – David Warren Ryder, 1939
Heartwarming as it is, the tale of San Francisco’s first civic Christmas tree—raised in 1879 by decree of the magnanimous Emperor Norton—is almost certainly untrue.
Yet SF’s first tree in Union Square was among the first in the nation. In 1912, civic trees were displayed in New York City, Boston and Hartford almost simultaneously, within 30 minutes of one another, with San Francisco close behind the following day.
Even more interesting is why they were put up at all.
Rather than as mere religious totems, civic trees were inspired by unity and inclusivity. In the shifting industrial landscape of the early 20th Century, U.S. cities swelled with new, mostly disjointed immigrant communities. Progressives of the time saw the civic tree as a way to bring together all classes and kinds of citizens (granted, they were mostly Christian) and foster good will among city and country.
Progressives found allies in Conservationists, who were then appalled by the number of trees felled each year for private display. A single, public tree seemed the perfect solution, one which everyone could enjoy regardless of wealth or status.
Clearly this did not stop folks from bringing trees into their homes. But over a century later, San Francisco remains a hotbed of ideas and diversity, and the tree is lit again in Union Square.
Whatever you celebrate this season, if you’re keen on SF history, you’ll find the articles linked above, and Emperor Norton’s fascinating story, to be well worth a read!
As always, please don’t hesitate to reach out with any real estate questions. We are always happy (and grateful!) to help you and anyone you send our way!
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