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Once upon a time in Tahoe City, there was a big tree in the middle of the main drag. The huge conifer was a town landmark, and when the street (now known as Hwy 28) was paved, the crew went around it. (See more details of the Big Tree’s history at my website: https://www.tahoehistory.info/tahoe-citys-big-tree/).

In the first peacetime Christmas following WWII, the citizens of Tahoe City looked forward to the holiday with great exuberance, and someone had the idea of decorating the Big Tree for all to enjoy…and to ask Santa to bring gifts for all the local children. Eleanor “Swanee” Swanson described the preparations:

from the Sierra Sun & Truckee Republican, December 19, 1946

On December 19, 1946, a new town tradition was born as the lights were thrown on, courtesy of the Lake Tahoe Ski Club (the Rotary Club of Tahoe City was still a year from being chartered) and Sierra Power Company.

from the Sierra Sun & Truckee Republican, December 26, 1946

In the years to come, staging of the Big Tree Party became an annual project of the Rotary Club, and Santa’s “sleigh” might be anything from a dogsled driven by Constable Harry Johanson to a sleigh provided by Squaw Valley wrangler “Bud” Jones to Don Snyder’s flatbed lumber truck. By 1964, refreshments provided by Bill and Shirley Conger (Conger’s Coffee Shop) had become part of the tradition.

from the Tahoe City World, December 18, 1964


By 1970, the children who had enjoyed the town’s first Big Tree Party were all grown up and had children of their own, and the tradition continued and grew. Recognize anyone?

Courtesy of the Sierra Sun & Truckee Republican

The Big Tree Party was still going strong into the 1980s, when my own kids were old enough to join in the fun. One year I recall Santa bringing them some dandy faux-fur animal hand-puppets. Though the through-traffic on the highway was increasing, no one seemed inconvenienced by having to slow down as they passed the celebration, and the fun continued.

But alas, all good things must come to an end. By Christmas 1994, the Big Tree Party had become an impossibility, owing to the removal of the arboreal icon, and impatient motorists hurrying through town were a threat to the safety of pedestrians.

The Big Tree stump in October 1994

Readers who can remember attending a Big Tree Party are a lucky bunch, for they were part of a lovely, small-town tradition that brought the wonder and joy of Christmas to its youngest citizens.


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3 thoughts on “Tahoe City’s Big Tree Party

  • Mindy Bechdolt Belding

    Some of the very best memories ever The Big tree and then some of us kids cousins friend a caroling we would go. Tahoe Inn grandpa always made sure we got hot chocolate or hot buttered rum w/o the rum of course Treats a long the way Oh what fun.Thanks for sharing. Mindy Bechdolt Belding

  • Allison Jones Hatzenbuhler

    It was such a visit to the past to read this article. I remember many a Christmas walking through town and being amazed at the Big Tree. It was a sad time when the tree came down. My father, Ray Jones and a member of Rotary, ended up cleaning up all the light strings that came off of the tree and I still have those bulbs in the sockets under my kitchen cabinets! I have about 100 bulbs left. I have warm memories every time I need to replace one!

  • Pam Bradley Collins

    This is a trip down memory lane. The Bradley kids & 2nd generation Bradleys were a part of this from the early 50s through the 70s. I believe there might might be a correction in order. The article refers to Bill & Shirley Conger as giving out treats & hot chocolate in the 60s. While they started this tradition, Mike LaFerriere owned Congers by the 60s. He continued this tradition and played the roll of Santa for many years, I believe.