“I’m afraid this may be Bartow’s last Christmas tree burning,” the city manager told me, a note of sadness in his voice.
The city manager was Jim O’Connor. The year was probably sometime in the early 1990s.
Bartow has had two more city managers since O’Connor: Joe DeLegge and George Long.
And almost every year, as the odometer approaches the New Year, somebody tells me that he or she has heard that the days of the tree burning are about to come to an end.
This year was no exception. The rumor has survived for 20 years.
Bartow’s Christmas tree burning began in 1936, the year before my parents were married and five years before I was born. Mother and Dad were old fashioned about things like that.
Many years ago, Dad told me he remembered the year of the first one because he attended with Louise Kelley, who would become his wife the following year, in 1937, right after he graduated from Florida Southern College.
The tradition was begun by Nye Jordan, a volunteer fireman and a city commissioner. He said it was bad luck to have a Christmas tree in your house after New Year’s.
The source of the superstition, which may have been New Orleans and may have been Mr. Nye’s time-wizened mind, is subject to conjecture.
But as a firefighter, he was all too aware of the danger that dried-out Christmas trees pose to a home, especially in the days before tree stands held water and when incandescent Christmas bulbs generated enough heat to turn green needles brown.
Mr. Nye’s tree burnings were interrupted during World War II, lest they serve as a beacon to Nazi bombers wanting to bomb a bonfire of burning Christmas trees, and were replaced for a year or two by environmental tree-chippings. Stormy weather caused cancellation of at least a couple of them.
But 76 years later, Bartow still burns its discarded Christmas trees as three or four generations of families sing “Auld Lang Syne.”
This year, we even had a few tailgaters among the perhaps 100 or so cars. I estimated the crowd at “a few hundred.” A few hundred starts at maybe 200, and stops at twice that number.
And I have no expertise at estimating crowds, especially when many of them are seated in their darkened cars.
With the increasing popularity of artificial trees, the pile of discarded trees has grown smaller, even as the crowds attending the event in recent years have grown larger.
(It was suggested to me this year that if the top 10 feet or so of the wooden utility pole around which the trees are stacked were cut off, the trees would reach the top, as in days of old. But I am so happy to see the tradition continue that I have no complaints.)
The purpose of this essay is not to wax sentimental, but to express appreciation to City Manager George Long, Parks and Recreation Director Angie Whisnant, Fire Chief Jay Robinson, and self-appointed chairman Eda Marchman for keeping the tradition alive. When it looked like the event would die for lack of leadership 37 years ago, Eda stepped forward and announced that she was in charge. Nobody has fought her for the job.
This event does not create itself; it takes a lot of work, and, I suspect, encouragement from the city’s top echelons.
Nobody makes a dime off of it. Parks and rec crews have to hustle to gather up the community’s discarded trees over the space of only two or three days and pile them up in Mary Holland Park. Firefighters ignite the blaze and stand watch until the last embers are cold.
About the only thing Bartow’s New Year’s Eve tree burning accomplishes is to bring smiles to the faces of a bunch of folks who enjoy taking their kids and grandkids to an event that they enjoyed in their own childhood.
And isn’t it great that in Bartow, that’s reason enough to keep a tradition alive?
(S. L. Frisbie is retired. As he observes in his annual stint as emcee, the event may not be that important to most people, but if a lovestruck Loyal Frisbie and Louise Kelley had not attended that first tree burning in 1936, he might not be here today. Indeed, he might not be anywhere today.)