'It's the start of Christmas'

COSTA MESA — Even for the most seasoned trucker, hauling a 14,000-pound Christmas tree down the 5 Freeway is a pretty unusual experience.

South Coast Plaza's 96-foot white fir — the same size and species as the one used last year — arrived at 7 a.m. in Town Center Park on Friday after an 11-hour drive down one of the state's busiest freeways.

"It's the start of Christmas," said Richard Coffey, the truck driver who's been responsible for transporting the holiday cargo 650 miles from Mt. Shasta for the last three years.

However, there was no holiday music playing inside Coffey's cab, who explained that he needed to focus fully on the road and other drivers.

"There were a lot of people taking pictures as I was going down the road," Coffey said. "You have to remain aware and cautious because people slow down as they get up beside you and hold up traffic."

The drive was punctuated by car horns and cheers from excited motorists, he said.

It is the 30th year in which the shopping center has hoisted a tree to kick off the start of the holiday shopping season. Over the next three weeks, about 15,000 lights will be strung across the tree's many branches.

Laguna Niguel-based Victor's Custom Christmas Trees provides the trees each year to South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island. The trees are harvested from private land.

The tree was cut down Wednesday and arrived in Costa Mesa on Thursday, where it was stored overnight near the shopping center in preparation for Friday morning's hoisting.

The official South Coast Plaza tree-lighting ceremony takes place at 5 p.m. Nov. 17 and will be accompanied by entertainment and the arrival of Santa Claus.

"The tree is one of the most significant symbols of the holiday season," said Debra Gunn Downing, executive director of marketing for the center. "And having a beautifully decorated tree just makes people feel good and happy."

Two smaller trees, each about 60 feet tall, will arrive next month to adorn the Jewel Court and center rotunda in the Macy's Home Store and Crate & Barrel wing, she said.

sarah.peters@latimes.com

Twitter: @speters01

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