Who needs a yule log?

  • Article by: MARY LYNN SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 1, 2010 - 10:12 PM

This couple's oak tree is decked out every holiday season. This year, LED lights make it even more stunning.


Last year’s Christmas ice storm damaged almost half of the bulbs on Bob and Julie Little’s illuminated oak in Bloomington. They had all the strands replaced with energy-efficient bulbs, 39,760 in all. Bob Little calls the display “our Christmas card to the world.”

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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When a Christmas Day ice storm hit last year, Bob and Julie Little pulled the plug on a long holiday tradition: the lighting of a 53-foot oak tree in white holiday lights that could be seen from miles along the Minnesota River Valley.

For nearly a decade, the 41,300 lights set the tree aglow, sparking wonder in the eyes of children and drawing gasps of amazement from grown-ups. But when the storm knocked out nearly half the lights, Bob finally felt defeated.

Then came spring, and Little decided to go green.

He ordered LED lights, which are more energy-efficient and better able to withstand harsh November rains, winter ice storms, heavy snows and gusty winds.

By March, Jessi Ernst, who oversees the trimming and lighting of the majestic oak, unwound its incandescent lights. In the fall, he meticulously rewound it with LEDs, replacing the tree's amber glow with what he calls a "Mercedes headlight blue."

Little could hardly contain his enthusiasm for lighting the tree this year. Traditionally, he flips the switch on Thanksgiving Day, then lighting the tree daily from 5 to 7 a.m. "so people can go to work in a good mood" and then again from 5 p.m. to midnight. The lights are turned off for the season on New Year's Day.

This year, Little lit the tree a week earlier. From afar, the oak seems to be covered in electric hoarfrost. Up close, the 39,760 lights shimmer in the wind like sequins.

As 12-year-old Brianna VanBuren of Mound stood beneath the tree, her face lit by the glow from above, she said, "It's big and pretty like a bunch of stars." Thirteen-year-old Jacquise Ziegler, who stood nearby, said: "It's beast." (Translation: "It's cool.")

Nancy Sorenson parked her car at the end of Little's driveway and got out to snap photos of a tree that she has passed for years. "It's more brilliant than ever," she said. "Breathtaking, to say the least."

Every year, Jenny Hollenbeck waits for the tree to be lit. "I just stare at that tree every time I pass by," she said. With the tree decked out in LEDs this year, she had to show it off to her friend, Steven Rusk. "It's really a generous thing for [the owner] to do for us," Hollenbeck said. "I've gotten so much enjoyment from it over the years, and so have my kids."

For Rusk, "total amazement" gave way to awe over the tedious task of wrapping the tree in tens of thousands of lights. Using a truck with a boom and bucket, Ernst spent hours in the tree for nearly three weeks.

He wrapped every log, branch and finger-size twig. He zig-zagged and danced through the canopy to ensure the tree's umbrella would become "an explosion of light" for drivers on Hwy. 77 south of the Mall of America and airline passengers going to and from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

And with luck, the durability of the LEDs will mean Ernst won't be in the tree in the dead of the winter. Over the years, he spent many nights braving the elements with a little handheld light tester, looking for dead bulbs.

Little's sheer joy over the lit oak is like that of a kid in a candy store. "He has the tree embroidered on everything but his underwear," Julie Little said.

"This tree has made so many people happy," Bob Little said. "It's our Christmas card to the world."

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788

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