Private efforts giving new life to “World’s Largest Living Christmas Tree” celebration in Wilmington

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WILMINGTON – An effort to revive a Port City tradition continues to take shape. The festivities that once centered around “The World’s Largest Living Christmas Tree” will soon have a new home. And it’s all thanks to a community-driven initiative. 

In 2009, the City of Wilmington decided to stop lighting the historic oak tree overlooking the Cape Fear River, a time honored tradition dating back to the late 1920s.

The reason behind the move was based on a number of factors. First and foremost, the tree was a skeleton of itself until getting dressed up to ring in the holiday season. Eighty-plus years of lighting a tree, which by some estimates was over 400 years old, can do that to any living thing. Second, the tree’s location next to the city’s Sweeney Water Treatment Plant created logistical problems for large crowds, marking the end of an era.

A rendition of what the new Christmas oak will look like from at the Legion Sports Complex on Carolina Beach Road. Photo courtesy- Gene Merritt.
An artist’s rendition of what the new Christmas oak will look like from at the Legion Sports Complex on Carolina Beach Road. (Courtesy of Gene Merritt)

A push to relocate Wilmington’s longest-continuing holiday custom started to build momentum over the last few years after resident Gene Merritt penned a letter to city officials. Merritt wanted to give new life to the time-honored tradition by bringing the yule-light spirit to another staple of the Port City: Legion Stadium.

Due to the private push to bring Christmas back to Wilmington in a form once cherished by so many,  donors have helped raise half of the $20,000 needed to turn the plan into action.

“Louise McColl and I have been in talks with City Councilman Charlie Rivenbark for a while now to try and figure a way to do something to keep the tradition going,” Merritt said. “After contacting the city, I didn’t hear much from them until a year or so ago.”

Money raised will go toward the purchase of a live oak tree, “with some size to it already,” with the hope of planting it this upcoming spring, he said. Private funds will also go toward a newly-constructed home for Santa Claus and the approximately 4,000 lights needed to decorate the new oak.

“It’s been approved by the city and we’ve been raising money to make this a reality,” Merritt added. “We want to buy a tree, plant it and (to) build a new building on wheels that will come out during Christmas where kids can go in and sit on Santa’s lap. The city wants the tree up front, near Carolina Beach Road.”

While annual Christmas celebrations within the city limits have since moved to Greenfield Lake Park, ground work has been laid to revitalize Wilmington’s “Whoville.” Families across the Port City should soon have a new place to begin traditions like hundreds of thousands of people who were able to experience joy around the famed “World’s Largest Living Christmas Tree.”