The Nation’s Christmas Tree
by Ben Kemp, Operations Manager
In the 1860s, a giant sequoia in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains was named the General Grant Tree after General Ulysses S. Grant. The President sent a letter to Lucretia Baker who in 1867 claimed to have named the tree in his honor and had forwarded some branches to him.
"Your favor of the 5th of September, by Express, accompanying a box containing branches &c. from the largest tree in California, and no doubt in the world, which too partial friends have done me the honor to name after me, is at hand. Please accept my thanks for thus remembering me and also for the kind expressions of regard contained in your letter."
Preservation efforts began in the 1870’s to protect the grove of sequoia trees surrounding the General Grant Tree and surrounding areas from logging. In 1890 President Harrison signed a bill establishing General Grant National Park (now part of Kings Canyon National Park) as the nation’s fourth National Park.
In October 1879 on his return from his world tour, General Grant had an opportunity to witness first hand the giant sequoia trees of the California Sierra Nevada on a six day stagecoach tour of Yosemite Valley.
Today the imposing and ancient tree (estimated at 1650 year old) has a 40 foot diameter and is nearly 270 feet in height, making it the second highest tree in the world. It is said that when a local California man visited the General Grant Tree one day in 1924 a young girl approached him and stated, “What a lovely Christmas tree that would be.” The next year the local community of Sanger sponsored a Christmas service at the tree, a tradition that is still carried on. This led in 1926 to President Coolidge officially designating the tree as the “Nation’s Christmas Tree.”
30 years later in 1956, President Eisenhower took the General Grant Tree to a higher level by designating it a National Shrine. This was done to “provide further recognition of the Nation’s Christmas Tree as a living symbol of our American Heritage…in memory of the men and women of the Armed Forces who have served and fought and died to keep this Nation free…” and it was officially dedicated on Veterans Day of the same year by military personnel. Since 1925 each Christmas, a wreath has been laid at the base of the General Grant Tree to honor those who have served in the armed forces.
Even though it is relatively remote, if one wishes to visit the Grant Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park, there are accommodations available. One can experience the wonder of nature that has inspired countless generations and that stands as a living shrine to our national holiday, to those who fought to keep our nation free and to a dedicated soldier and statemen who dedicated his life to his country.