Giant fir ushers in holiday cheer

When a guest at the Westin South Coast Plaza pulled open the curtains Monday morning, a 96-foot Christmas tree floated past the window.

The South Coast Plaza holiday tree had arrived at the Town Center Park on Anton Boulevard in Costa Mesa after a journey of more than 600 miles.

A dozen workers from the tree company helped to guide the 20,000-pound white fir, suspended from a 235-ton crane, toward an awaiting 10-foot hole.

Several South Coast Plaza employees were also on hand.

"It's cold out here," said Debra Gunn Downing, the executive director of marketing, as she approached the bunch, rubbing her arms for warmth.

"It's Christmas!" Stanley Taeger, director of property management, returned enthusiastically.

Taeger, who has seen each of the 32 annual trees erected, had given the all-clear to raise the tree from the flat truck bed just after 9 a.m.

It rose horizontally at first. The crane operator carefully swung it upright and maneuvered it among the trimmed poplars in the park. Slowly, he then lowered it toward the open hole in the ground, which is usually covered and masked by landscaping, as workers used long planks of wood to guide it.

"This is not a simple tree arrival," Downing said.

The tree, cut from the Lake Shasta region, had been marked for possible use as a Christmas tree years before.

Rockefeller Center and the White House may boast robust blue spruces, but the South Coast Plaza employees believe the slender fir best suited to their location.

They picked the height so it would reach just above the nearby poplars, Taeger said. They picked the shape to match that of a traditional tree.

The top third of a tree is the most important part of determining how it will look overall, said Victor Serrao, of Victor's Custom Christmas Trees.

Serrao's company, founded by his father, has overseen South Coast Plaza's tree's arrival every year, Taeger said. In earlier years, Henry Segerstrom, who opened the shopping center, used to pick the tree himself.

In the coming days, the tree will be fireproofed. Additional branches will be inserted into its trunk to give it a more full look. Lights will be threaded around each branch, from tip to trunk.

First, those involved had to be sure it stood straight.

Once it rested in the ground, Taeger and other South Coast Plaza employees buzzed about with walkie talkies, offering suggestions if they perceived the tree as leaning one way or another. Workers wedged in pieces of wood under their direction.

Finally, just before 10 a.m., Tager declared, "It's in!"

The tree lighting ceremony will take place at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 21.

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