Deck the Boughs

I t’s a sunny November afternoon on the New Haven Green. One blue city bus follows another to the stop in front of Trinity Church on the Green. A gust of wind launches yellow leaves from east to west like tiny birds. The dark, winged shadows of real birds—a flock of pigeons—race across the dry fountain, where a few people sit in the sun eating lunch or talking. The pigeons land in the still-green grass to pick at seeds or insects—whatever they can find.

Halloween has just passed, and few have Thanksgiving turkeys in the freezer. The temperature on the green is a balmy 63 degrees. But it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Anchored just north of the fountain is a 60-foot-tall Norway spruce, and the weeks-long process of decking it with many thousands of colored lights is underway.

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How it could possibly take four men four weeks to string Christmas tree lights is a fair thing to wonder about. At home, you can typically light your tree in a matter of minutes, not hours or days or weeks.

But move in close and you’ll see the magnitude of this task. I step under the boughs with city worker Adam Wambolt, who’s a little bit like a kid on Christmas morning. He calls this one of the “really exciting change-ups” in his job as a city tree “trimmer”—as in both pruning and, this time of year, decorating. We peer skyward through a lattice of branches. The tree’s inner workings are a mass of wires, electrical tape and zip ties as well as some leftover ropes that were used to tie up the branches of the 9,000-pound-plus behemoth for transportation from Prospect. The branches down near us and high above are already double-strung from the trunk radiating out along every branch and sub-branch. The middle of the tree is still au naturel. Sometime within the next couple of weeks, workers from top and bottom will meet in the middle.

This method of stringing the tree is borrowed from New York City’s Rockefeller Center, the difference being that New York “put[s] staging up all the way around it,” veteran city tree trimmer Jeff Ryan says. New York will “have like 25 people working on it. Whereas we have like four,” he says, laughing. “So it takes us a long time to do it.” New Haven trimmers rely on ladders and two trucks with cherry picker buckets.

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Each strand of lights bears about 250 bulbs, Wambolt says. Part of his job involves screwing in and testing them, replacing those that have broken and retiring old strands. The lights come in yellow, orange, red, green, blue and the very rare purple. Wambolt guesses there are maybe six of the latter on the whole tree. He points out the lowest branches now grazing the grass, weighted by the lights. Some will be wired up later “so that they’re more spaced out nicely,” Wambolt says. Other gaps will be filled by boring holes in the trunk and inserting extra branches, but Ryan says this year’s tree is “a nice tree… Aesthetically, it’s perfect.” Maybe they’ll add one or two branches for good measure.

This is Ryan’s 22nd year supervising the set-up of the tree, which he calls “a big responsibility.” New Haveners, he says, can be tough to please. Everybody’s got a comment. “Charlie Brown tree—that’s their favorite,” he says, adding that the criticism “really brings you down.” After all, the trees are donated, “so you get what you get. It’s not like we have a farm where we have all these perfect trees.”

There are always concerns about the cost as well. Parks department electrician Jim Wankowitz points out the three “hot wires” on each underground cable on the green, delivering 400 amps each. “We don’t use any real portion of it at all,” he says, noting that the lights were switched over to LEDs a few years ago and only draw about 40 to 50 amps. Rebecca Bombero, director of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees, says corporate sponsor Wells Fargo donates some of the money to cover the crew working on the tree as well as the cost of some of the entertainment offered on the night of the lighting. Over 10,000 people are expected for this year’s festivities on November 29 from 4 to 8 p.m., with the actual lighting, which is broadcasting live via NBC Connecticut, sometime between 7 and 7:30.

The tree will stay up until January 7 for Three Kings Day and Orthodox Christmas. Then it will be chipped for reuse. Larger pieces will be milled by City Bench and made into furniture, some of which the city will receive. Bombero says a bench in the Parks and Rec headquarters is made from a past Christmas tree.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before we deck the halls, we need to deck the boughs.

New Haven Tree Lighting
New Haven Green (map)
Nov 29, 4-8pm (lighting 7-7:30)
Facebook Event

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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