It is difficult to comprehend the immense size, age and stature of the General Grant Tree, but it is easy to let your mind and spirit rise as its trunk carries your gaze toward the skies.
This tree has inspired thousands of people including the late Charles E. Lee of Sanger, California. In 1924 he visited what was then General Grant National Park, and found himself standing by the Grant Tree with a little girl. As they admired the huge tree, the girl exclaimed, "what a wonderful Christmas tree it would be!"
The idea stayed with Mr. Lee, and in 1925 he organized the first Christmas program, held at the Grant Tree at noon on Christmas Day. Mr. Lee, then secretary of the Sanger Chamber of Commerce, and Mr. R.J. Senior, president of the Chamber, conceived the idea of an annual ceremony. Mr. Lee wrote to President Calvin Coolidge, who designated the General Grant as the Nation's Christmas Tree on April 28, 1926.
At one of the early gatherings, Colonel John White, longtime Park Superintendent, expressed the feeling that brings people here year after year. "We are gathered here around a tree that is worthy of representing the spirit of America on Christmas Day. That spirit is best expressed in the plain things of life, the love of the family circle, the simple life of the out-of-doors. The tree is a pillar that is a testimony that things of the spirit transcend those of the flesh."
Some people have returned many times to rededicate themselves to the spirit of the season in the presence of this magnificent tree:
In 1976, the 50th ceremony was attended by Elizabeth Gates, who remembered the adventure of getting to the first program with her father R. J. Senior. It was a much longer, colder and more hazardous trip than today's.
Peter Beier, 27 years old at the first ceremony, still had a perfect attendance record at the 50th anniversary. He even made the trek to the tree in 1971 when a snowstorm had closed the road and the ceremony was held outside the park. He and a handful of hardy campers made it to the tree to watch as park rangers placed the traditional wreath.
A Sanger native who took part in the first ceremony as a child later returned to deliver the Christmas message. Jasper G. Havens was a minister in Idaho and Utah when he returned to speak in 1978. He recalled the cold trip of 1926 in the family's Model-T Ford.
In 1984, Al Saroyan, then 73, was honored at the 58th ceremony as one of the three Sanger High School trumpet players who performed at the 1926 event.
The Sanger Chamber of Commerce continues to sponsor the annual Christmas "Trek to the Tree" on the second Sunday of December at 2:30 p.m. For more information, contact them at 559 875-4575.
The General Grant Tree is a living memorial to the men and women of the United States who have given their lives in service to their country. It was proclaimed a National Shrine on March 29, 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The official dedication was made that year on Veterans Day, November 11, by the president's personal representative, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. Each year during the Christmas ceremony, park rangers place a large wreath at the base of the Grant Tree, remembering those who gave their lives.
It is fitting that a giant sequoia would be chosen as the only living national shrine. These trees (Sequoiadendron giganteum) are wondrous in many respects. They are the largest living individual things on earth. Though not the tallest, nor the widest, nor the oldest, the trunks of these monarchs occupy more space than any other single organism.
Chemical elements in the wood, along with a very thick bark, make these trees resistant to the natural fires and diseases common to Sierran forests. Their wood is so impervious to decay that piles of sawdust remain in Grant Grove's Big Stump Basin where sequoias were cut for lumber over 100 years ago. This ability helps them to survive for centuries; the oldest known sequoia lived more than 3200 years. Since they continue to grow each year, they achieve impressive sizes. The General Grant Tree, third largest of the sequoias, is over 267' tall, 40' across its base and over 107' around. Estimates of its age range from 1500 to 2000 years old. Once it was thought to be 4000 years old due to its extreme width, but scientific studies have shown that its size is due to rapid growth in an ideal location.
Each year, in all seasons, visitors can return again and again to seek renewal of spirit and experience the wonder of the natural world in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.