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Sapling to Superstar: Woman's 45-Foot Spruce Is Chicago's Christmas Tree

It's the Windy City's first official tree grown within its urban borders

Catherine Townsend, 85, stands in front of a tree she grew from a sapling that was chosen by the City of Chicago for display in Millennium Park for the 2020 Christmas season.

Heidi Zeiger/City of Chicago

Catherine Townsend will never forget the pride she felt when she first saw her blue spruce tree in the heart of Millennium Park, its sturdy branches covered in colorful Christmas lights.

"It was simply gorgeous,” she recalls. “When we were near the tree and taking pictures, we'd hear comments [like] ‘Oh, that's gorgeous,’ and the little kids were oohing and aahing."

It was a moment of pleasure for Townsend, 85, who nurtured that tree from a sapling.

After purchasing her red brick home in the city's Madison Park neighborhood in 1983, Townsend, a retired Chicago Public Schools teacher, bought three blue spruce trees. She hired the little boy next door to plant the trees but never imagined that the 3-foot-tall saplings would grow into towering evergreen trees.

During her home search she always admired the stately evergreens she'd see on people's properties. “I thought they added such elegance to the homes,” she says. “I was looking [for a tree] that would perhaps be 14 feet, never 45 feet."

Looking back, Townsend confesses that even if she'd known the evergreens would grow to 45 feet, she still would have planted them in her yard.


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A gardener's delight

This year, as Townsend prepared to sell her home in the Madison Park neighborhood of Chicago, her daughter, Sherri Mitchell, read an article in a local newspaper that the City of Chicago was seeking nominations for its official Christmas tree. The winning tree would be displayed in Millennium Park. Mitchell encouraged her mom to enter.

The blue spruce was such a fixture in their yard, Mitchell thought it would make the perfect centerpiece to the city's Christmas festivities.

Planted in their side yard, the tree was the first thing Mitchell and her sister saw when they opened the shades in the kitchen window each morning. Townsend placed a bench beneath the tree to provide a spot to sit in the shade, and the neighborhood children called it “the Christmas tree” long before the family considered the evergreen a monument to the holidays.

Although the City of Chicago has been hosting an annual Christmas tree lighting since 1913, the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events only started inviting local residents to nominate their trees for the honor in 2009.

The annual Christmas tree competition has become increasingly popular, according to City of Chicago chief marketing officer Jamey Lundblad. This year, the city received 78 nominations.

The entry requirements specified that the evergreen had to be at least 45 feet tall, preferably a Norway spruce or fir tree, and must be located within 50 miles of Chicago's famous downtown, the Loop.

Catherine Townsend, 85, stands in front of a tree she grew from a sapling that was chosen by the City of Chicago for display in Millennium Park for the 2020 Christmas season.

Heidi Zeiger/City of Chicago

Catherine Townsend's blue spruce tree was the first official Chicago Christmas tree grown inside the city's borders.

Even though her tree met all of the criteria, Townsend knew a lot of local homeowners would be vying for the chance to have their tree chosen as the official City of Chicago Christmas tree. She agreed to enter but admits, “Never in my wildest dreams would I have dreamt that we were going to win that contest."

After reviewing the entries, Lundblad said the blue spruce stood out from the competition. “Ms. Townsend's tree was selected for its height and fullness and because of the wonderful story her family shared about their mother's pride in her yard's beautiful landscaping,” he says.

In the nomination, Mitchell wrote, “Gardening has always been my mother's favorite hobby. Neighbors always complimented her on her flowers and her yard's beautiful landscaping, not the least of which were our towering spruce trees."

A tree that made history

As Townsend watched the crews cut the tree and load it on a truck bound for Millennium Park, she called it a “wonderful feeling” to know that the magnificent tree that had shaded her yard for decades would be standing tall in the heart of the city for all to see.

The towering blue spruce also holds a special place in Chicago history: It is the first official Christmas tree grown in the city. All of the trees selected in previous years grew in the surrounding suburbs.

"I saw in one of the papers that it was making history for a Christmas tree,” Townsend recalls. “Not many homeowners get this opportunity. It was a blessing from God."

A few weeks after the tree was removed from her yard, Townsend and Mitchell went to see it all lit up for the holidays. Thanks to its impressive height, Townsend was able to spot the twinkling tree from several blocks away. It took her breath away.

"With so many things, COVID-19 and people having such hardships [this year] it brings joy and beauty to many of us,” Townsend says. “It made me feel so good to see the little children gathered around and looking at it — it felt sort of unbelievable."