96-foot Christmas tree delivered to South Coast Plaza

Crew members from Victor's Custom Christmas Trees, Inc. hoist a 96 foot white fir from Mt. Shasta into place at South Coast Plaza's Town Center Park in Costa Mesa in preparation for the upcoming holiday season.

The space shuttle Endeavour wasn’t the only massive object traversing Southland streets this weekend.

South Coast Plaza’s 96-foot Christmas tree finished its own arduous trek Monday morning, about 650 miles from near Mt. Shasta in Northern California to arrive at Town Center Park, across the street from the mall.

The white fir — which rolled into town on the largest trailer allowed on the road — will be prepped in the coming weeks with about 20,000 multicolored lights for the Plaza’s 31st annual tree-lighting ceremony Nov. 15. The ceremony always falls on the Thursday before Thanksgiving, which this year required such an early installation date, South Coast Plaza publicist Lee Healy said.

What started out as “a wild idea” three decades ago has become an integral part of Orange County’s holiday season, said South Coast’s director of property management, Stanley Taeger.

Taeger, who sported a red Christmas tree-patterned tie Monday morning, said the yearly lighting ceremony is “about family,” and “not about glitz and glamour.”

That’s why the tree, which now stands among poplars and sycamore trees outside the Westin and South Coast Repertory, never makes its way into the shopping center itself.

“We don’t want it to be a commercial, get you here to shop [thing],” he said.

All told, Taeger said, the project will cost about $80,000.

Early Monday morning, a few kids looked out from hotel-room windows as the 20,000-pound tree was hoisted several stories into the air from its parking spot near the Westin South Coast Plaza valet port, then slowly lowered into an 8-foot hole.

Workers from Victor’s Custom Christmas Trees adjusted the tree with wooden wedges hammered into the base of the trunk.

One of those workers, 36-year-old Kai McLaughlin, had, like the tree itself, journeyed to work on the company’s first tree installation of the season.

McLaughlin, who is the nephew of Victor’s Custom Christmas Trees owner Victor Serrao, said he lives in Hawaii and comes to the mainland for several weeks every year to help with the family business.

“I’ve done the South Coast tree almost every year since I was old enough to do it,” he said. McLaughlin’s grandfather founded the company, which installs and decorates about 15 large commercial trees every year, about half a century ago.

Serrao said Victor’s has done the South Coast Plaza tree for “at least 25 years.” The company decorates other high-profile holiday trees around California (like the Fashion Island tree), in other states and abroad.

He said Victor’s employees head up to Northern California in the summer to scope out trees that timber companies mark for chopping. They claim and tag the trees, then return to truck them wherever they need to go.

Because the trees will be out and exposed for upward of two months, Serrao said, they’re sprayed with a green-tinted flame retardant, along with a glue-like substance that prevents needles from falling off, early in the decorating process.

Monday’s installation, Serrao said, went pretty smoothly, with no weather or equipment-related hitches.

A warm Indian-Summer sun began to shine as the Victor’s crew finished up about 9:30 a.m.

Lou Michelson, 71, paused on his daily walk with his silky black and white Japanese chin dog, Aggie, to snap a few cell phone pictures of the proceedings. He said he looks forward to the holiday season — even if it does seem to creep earlier every year.

“Oh, I love the tree,” he said. “I don’t think it’s ever too early anymore.”

Twitter: @jillcowan