Usually around this time of year, neighbors gather near the massive Christmas tree outside Joan Giles’s house in Baldwin to ring in the holiday season with a lighting ceremony.
And while the ceremony wasn’t a go this year for safety precautions, the tree — which stands more than 80 feet tall, taller than the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in Manhattan — was still decorated and lit.
“I said, ‘You know, Mom, I think the neighborhood needs this this year — I think everybody needs it this year — something to make them smile and something to bring a little bit of happiness,” said Giles’s daughter, Katie, who lives in England, “because this year has been horrible and stressful for everybody.”
Katie said her mother was considering not decorating the tree this year, since she and her sister, Liz, who lives in Morocco, wouldn’t be visiting for the holidays because of the coronavirus pandemic. They could see photos of it, though, so they encouraged her to continue with the tree tradition, adding that everyone could use “a little bit of hope” this year.
The tree has been a Giles family tradition for eight years now, and it began as a way to pay tribute to Joan’s late husband, who had always said he wanted to decorate and light the tree.
“There won’t be any big shebang to start the season, but the big thing is, with my mom being kind of isolated, just in general, but this year even more,” Katie said, “the tree is a really nice way for her to connect with the community.”
The company that sets up the lights, Pacific Lawn Sprinklers, has done the work from the beginning. Workers used to use a 60-foot cherry picker, Katie said, with a ladder that would extend to the top of the tree, but now they use an 80-foot cherry picker.
They are “testing the limits,” she said, “because the tree just keeps growing. You just start to notice because every year we have to pay for more lights because they need a couple extra strands.”
The tree has been there since Giles, who is in her 70s, moved in 1971 to her house, at Irving Place and Harte Street. And when it’s lit, you can spot the tree from the train station a mile away.
The lights were turned on the day before Thanksgiving this year, although, typically, the family would wait until the Saturday after Thanksgiving to host the lighting ceremony. The Town of Hempstead would close the street, the Baldwin Fire Department would come, Santa Claus would visit and pose for photos, and hot chocolate would be passed around.
Two years ago, toys were collected to donate to St. Christopher’s Church in Baldwin to give to people in need.
“Somebody, about three or four years ago, actually painted a picture of the tree and gave it to her,” Katie said of her mother. “That’s the stuff she just loves. She loves that people come by to drive by and look at it, or get on the lawn to take pictures. She really enjoys that.”
When she would visit, she frequently heard people outside the house talking and running onto the property to take their holiday photos and then run away.
“If anyone is feeling particularly festive and would be kind enough to send or drop a holiday card to Mom, it would certainly be appreciated,” Katie’s sister, Liz, posted to a Baldwin Facebook group. “She could use some extra holiday cheer this year.”
A photo of the tree had garnered 536 likes and 189 comments, mostly from neighbors, at press time Monday.
“Love this tree and the tradition of your family’s tree lighting ceremony over the years,” said Baldwinite Maureen Herman, the administrator of the Facebook group.
“I love that I can see it from my house at night,” commented Gloria Wheeler Cordeiro. “Thank you for giving our neighborhood such joy!”
“How very generous to share the holiday lights with the community,” commented Bruce Ellis. “It’s a bright spot in what has been a dismal year.”