It came on doublewide sleigh with a Forest Service Santa Claus look alike leading its course. Little performers in red and white danced around it to Jingle Bells and onlookers signed its carriage with messages of love and praise.
The 2009 Capitol Christmas Tree touched down in Payson briefly Tuesday night on its cross-country journey to Washington, D.C.
Some 500 residents turned out to catch a glimpse of the 64-foot blue spruce from the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.
This is the first time a Capitol Tree has come from Arizona since 1970, when the tradition of giving a Christmas tree, known as the “People’s Tree,” to Congress began. Last year, a 73-foot subalpine fir from Bitterroot National Forest in Montana was selected.
In celebration of the tree and his upcoming retirement in January, Jim Payne, Arizona issues management/regional media officer with the Forest Service, grew out his beard, giving himself an uncanny resemblance to Santa Claus.
Payne is an official escort for the tree and will stay with it on its 3,000-mile, three-week tour.
Payne explained the journey of the tree started in December when it was announced the Capitol Tree would come from Arizona. The Forest Service began looking for appropriate trees and several were selected. Superintendent of U.S. Capitol Grounds Ted Bechtol visited Arizona July 19 and selected the 9,000-pound 85-foot tree because of its uniformity and overall beauty, Payne said.
July 19 also marked the 100th anniversary of conservationist Aldo Leopold arriving at the Apache National Forest to work with the U.S. Forest Service, Payne said.
For this reason, this year’s tree has also been dubbed the “Aldo Leopold Centennial Tree.”
Leopold was a pioneer in the conservation of natural resources. He wrote many books including his most famous, “A Sand County Almanac,” according to a U.S. Forest Service Web site.
After cutting this year’s tree, it was pruned to 64 feet to meet Capitol height requirements and to fit it on a custom trailer, which was fully enclosed and included a swamp cooler and humidifier for moisture.
The 70-year-old tree was cut down on Nov. 7, with 850 people in attendance. It took two cranes to load the tree onto a custom cradle designed to keep the branches from breaking.
A dozen vehicles, including two semi-trucks, will escort the tree. The base of the tree is connected to a plastic bladder filled with 65 gallons of water; it is refilled nightly.
On Tuesday, the tree began its journey. At its first stop in Pinetop, 900 residents got the first glimpse of the giant. In Show Low, 1,300 residents cut work and school to see the tree and in Snowflake 300 stood in line to peek their heads into the crate and see the top of the tree. By the time the tree reached Payson, a banner hung on the side of the tree’s box, was already full of signatures.
Payson Police Chief Don Engler said seven police volunteers and two officers were directing traffic around the event and working crowd control.
“It is pretty nice to see this come through,” Engler said, who had brought his wife, mother and son for the event. “It is quite an experience.”
Robert Henley, director of northern Gila County’s chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters, said he was excited to see so many people from the community show up for the event.
The tree will arrive in Washington Dec. 8 and be lit by House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl along with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in attendance.
It will be decorated with some 10,000 handmade ornaments crafted from Arizona schoolchildren and residents.
Fourth- and fifth-grade students at Payson Elementary School created five ornaments representing Arizona for the tree in October. Students paper-mâchéd a large javelina, sun, desert tortoise, Indian pot and sunset ornaments. Students in Tonto Basin also submitted ornaments.
The ornaments are at least nine inches tall, durable enough to withstand three weeks of winter and made with recycled materials so they biodegrade.
An additional 1,000 indoor ornaments will decorate 75 smaller trees placed throughout federal buildings at the Capitol.
A semi-truck is transporting all the ornaments to Washington, D.C.
After Payson’s festivities Tuesday, the tree was stored at the Gila County Maintenance yard overnight. On Wednesday, it traveled south to Fountain Hills.
To track the trees progress across the U.S., visit www.trackthetree.com.