Kansas City, MO

Kansas City's history of the mayor’s Christmas tree

CJ Coombs

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The 100-foot tree arrives!Crowncenter.com

This year, the Mayor’s Christmas tree came from Oregon. The tree is a Douglas fir and stands 100 feet tall.

When I used to work near Crown Center, I would watch the progress of the tree being assembled as it was unloaded in pieces. While it was being put together, anyone could watch it with a child’s eyes as it grew taller. There is no practical way the tree could have been transported from its origin in the forest it came from to its traditional site.

When the tree is put together and the thousands of lights and ornaments dress it, it’s a beautiful sight, especially when you can make it out to the annual lighting ceremony.

But when did the history of this annual event begin? We know the tree represents a longstanding city tradition that includes the Christmas Tree Fund. As reported by KMBC News, Mayor Quintin Lucas said:

Last year we had a wonderful virtual ceremony. But as somebody who was there, I kind of like seeing people. It's not the same without being around folks, getting a chance to say hi, getting a chance to see families not just from around Kansas City, but, really, I feel like, all around America.

Did you know that when the tree is taken down, it is cut into ornaments and sold to benefit the Mayor's Christmas Tree Fund? The money made also helps city residents who are experiencing poverty.

Some say the history of the Mayor’s Christmas Tree began over 100 years ago with Mayor George M. Shelley (1849–1927) who held office from 1878-1879. He was focused on helping the less fortunate in Kansas City. He would use his money to purchase items to create baskets for families in need. He also purchased wood storing it out in the open (now the City Market) for people to come and get some they needed it. Mayor Shelley was also calling on people in the community to come and help.

His instructions, too, were for any struggling family to come on Christmas day to gather up some food. He also had baskets of food delivered to families.

At that first charitable Christmas arranged by Mayor Shelley, 322 families- 1,309 Kansas Citians- were given a Christmas meal.

In the following year in 1879, Mayor Shelley decided to make feeding the hungry in the city an annual affair. They set up everything in a larger venue including decorated Christmas trees. Of course, back then, lights on trees were candle lights. Even though there was more than one tree, it’s said that was considered the beginning of the first Mayor’s Christmas Tree. Many people showed up that year for the baskets of food.

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George Madison Shelley (1849–1927).Wikipedia.

With subsequent mayors not following Mayor Shelley’s vision in helping people, the annual tradition didn’t occur again for 15 more years.

How the mayor's Christmas tree fund evolved

Thomas T. Crittenden Jr. (1863-1938) who was Kansas City's 35th mayor from 1908 through1910 created the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund due to a desire to be able to help many children who probably wouldn’t have a Christmas otherwise. He wanted to have a municipal Christmas tree that poor children could come to see. So he began asking the community for help to donate to a fund and he was able to raise $10,000. From 1908 to 1935, the first Mayor’s Christmas Tree event occurred at Convention Hall (where Barney Allis Plaza now sits). When the Municipal Auditorium replaced the Convention Hall, the tree event was held there.

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Thomas Theodore Crittenden Jr. (b. Dec. 23, 1863, d. July 31, 1938)Wikipedia.

From that year through 1922, children who attended would receive treats, food and toys, and a visit by clowns putting on a show. According to Mayor Crittenden, the poor children would show up with ragged clothes, but with excitement on their faces.

Mayor H. Roe Bartle (1901-1974) was the first to make some changes concerning the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund. In prior years, the main purpose of the fund was for children. In 1955, Mayor Bartle decided to invite the elderly to City Hall to celebrate, and in 1956, he distributed packages to the elderly. Instead of a large event, he had Christmas music playing from speakers on top of the Liberty Memorial which temporarily abandoned the original focus of children.

In 1957, Mayor Bartle was the first mayor to bring upon a new tradition to Kansas City involving a 30-foot tall tree that was placed in Municipal Auditorium Plaza Park. This was the first time there was a public ceremony with the mayor lighting the Christmas tree. In the following year, the 50th anniversary of the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund was celebrated with a 35-foot tall tree being cut down from Swope Park and lit up by Mayor Bartle.

In 1959, the Mayor’s Christmas Tree was moved to Gillham Park located at 39th and Gillham. That year, there was a large Nativity scene including people and animals to add to the large tree in the park. The Nativity scene would continue for years.

Every year, the tree would stand until 1973. Then, the new permanent location switched to Crown Center. By 1981, the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund started making commemorative ornaments that were made from the tree coming down. These ornaments would be sold to raise money made out of the prior year’s tree that people could purchase and raise money to go towards the charitable cause. This practice continues.

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The Mayor's Christmas Tree in its splendorPassportstolife.com

Reflections of the charitable cause

It's been written that the 100-foot tall tree is one of the tallest in the nation. It stands for memorable years of giving that were initiated with Mayor Shelley's random act of kindness. The original vision of helping the city's people who are not fortunate continues by helping children and the elderly. Kindness and generosity continue to be spread.

The act of giving is perpetual and fulfills the mission that began so many years ago. If you would like to purchase a Christmas tree commemorative ornament made from last year's tree, go to the Mayor's Christmas Tree Ornament site to complete an order form and to see pictures of the ornament options.

Source: KMBC News; The Telegraph

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Hello! I have 30 years of experience in the legal field, and a BA in Eng Journalism & Creative Writing. I am an incessant thinker, giver, and lover of life. Born into the service life of the Air Force in Louisiana, life has taken me to Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, and ultimately to Missouri, I don't have that true concept of "home," but believe every living experience is tied to language. I love my family, art, true crime, non-fiction, reading, travel, and red pinot.

Kansas City, MO
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