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How many lights does it take to decorate Gainesville's 40-foot Christmas tree?
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City of Gainesville employees place lights on the holly tree Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, at the intersection of Green and Academy Streets. The tree has been decorated for Christmas every year since 1982 when the tradition was started by the Rotary Club of Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

At the fork of Academy and Green streets stands “Gainesville’s famous tree” — a 40-foot native holly tree that’s been the centerpiece of one of the city’s most beloved holiday traditions for 40 years.

Every year, thousands of multicolored LED lights — 2,500 to be exact — are draped around the tree, shining from dusk until dawn for the duration of the holiday season. 

The Rotary Club of Gainesville introduced the tradition in December 1982.

The triangle of land on which the tree stands was dedicated to Mary John Dunlap Mitchell upon her death in 1934, and is maintained by the Rotary Club of Gainesville as a community beautification project.

Mitchell, whose home once stood across the street from the tree, promoted beautification projects around town and was active in the Gainesville Garden Club, which maintained the triangle of land before turning it over to the Rotary Club.

Today, the space is maintained by the Rotary Club of Gainesville, whose members regularly prune the native tree and provide “year-round landscape services to this triangular park space,” Rotary Club of Gainesville President Mike McGraw said.

Dale Jaeger, landscape architect and Rotary Club member, has been involved with keeping the tree up to par since 2010, after the tree caught fire in June 2009. 

“One of the primary things that the Rotary Club has done is trying to protect the health of the tree long-term for its survival,” Jaeger said. “We got the tree pruned in 2010 and again in 2011, just to do it two years in a row and to get it in place. Since then, we’ve done it about every two to three years.”

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City of Gainesville employee Jake Samples uses a bucket truck to place lights near the top of the 40-foot holly tree Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, at the intersection of Green and Academy Streets. The tree is entering its 40th season of being illuminated with 2,500 Christmas lights. The tradition was started by the Rotary Club of Gainesville in 1982. - photo by Scott Rogers

Although the exact age of the tree remains a mystery, Jaeger says that the holly tree grows very slowly and the diameter of the trunk indicates it is well up in age.

The Rotary Club and the city of Gainesville work hand in hand to display the lights on the tree; Rotarians provide the lights, and the city’s public works personnel put them on the tree. 

From one Rotarian’s point of view, the annual lighting of the holly tree is a tradition that fosters the spirit of togetherness.

“I have only lived here since 2014, but since I have been here the lighting of the Rotary tree symbolizes the Christmas season and brings the community together,” said Carol Colon, the Rotary Club’s administrative director. 

The ceremonial lighting of the Rotary is set for 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4, following the Christmas on Green Street parade.

“It’s like the same thrill like the lighting of the tree (at Rockefeller Center) in New York City — people come and they just wait in anticipation of the tree being lit,” Colon said.

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City of Gainesville employee Brandon Nix places lights on the 40-foot holly tree Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, at the intersection of Green and Academy Streets. The tree is entering its 40th season of being illuminated with 2,500 Christmas lights. The tradition was started by the Rotary Club of Gainesville in 1982. - photo by Scott Rogers
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City of Gainesville employee Brandon Nix places lights on the 40-foot holly tree Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, at the intersection of Green and Academy Streets. The tree is entering its 40th season of being illuminated with 2,500 Christmas lights. The tradition was started by the Rotary Club of Gainesville in 1982. - photo by Scott Rogers