Pete Turok knew his hunt for the perfect conifer had ended as soon as he pulled into the quiet Anoka neighborhood.
There, towering above a split-level house, stood his showstopper.
“I swear a light was shining down on top of that tree and a chorus was singing,” said Turok, a self-proclaimed “Christmas nut” who has been with the Anoka Area Chamber of Commerce for 30 years. “In my tenure, this is the best tree we’ve ever had.”
In the Halloween capital of the world, it’s Christmas that Turok finds himself longing for. Every year, Turok and his team set out to find an evergreen centerpiece worthy of the suburb’s Christmas tree lighting — a task that has taken on greater urgency in recent years. Beefed-up marketing has transformed Anoka’s modest community get-together of several hundred people into an event that draws as many as 10,000 holiday revelers from across the metro.
“This thing has absolutely gone nuts, so the need for a really nice tree has increased,” Turok said.
The evergreen chosen this year comes from the front yard of Bob Brass, who saw a small write-up in the newspaper in August about the city’s annual search. Brass answered the plea, guided more by pragmatics than Christmas whimsy.
He wondered if the Black Hills spruce he had planted decades ago — the one that has long made backing out of his driveway a headache, obscuring his view with its wide silhouette — would fit the bill for the tree lighting.
Did it ever, Turok says.
Plucked from the relative obscurity of Brass’ front yard, the spire-like tree beat out its prickly contenders to become the biggest in memory for the annual event, planned this year for Saturday.
For months, Brass’ evergreen has loomed large in the minds of event organizers. It took its place in front of City Hall last week, setting the town of 17,000 abuzz. Passersby admire its size and its shapely limbs, flush with blue-green foliage.
The spruce stands about 44 feet tall, but its width attracts the most incredulity, with a girth fit for Kriss Kringle.
“We had to buy more lights,” Turok said.
Crews doubled the number of strands typically used, bumping the number of lights from 5,000 to 10,000 to trim Brass’ tree. The moment the lights set the tree aglow must dazzle crowds, Turok said: “When that light gets switched on, I want ‘Ahh,’ not ‘Oh.’ ”
More than 30 years ago, Brass, a semiretired accountant, paid “maybe $5” for the tree that would one day illuminate Anoka’s downtown. He brought it home along with two other 3-foot saplings, eventually planting two of them in his front yard.
Determined from youth to steal the show, Anoka’s future Christmas tree snuffed out its sibling, unwilling to share the landscaping spotlight.
“It was hogging all the sun,” said Brass, 71.
Brass had already been thinking about cutting his spruce down when he found out a crew would remove the tree for free if he donated it for the lighting. Once the holidays are over, the tree will be turned into mulch and recycled in the city’s park system.
“All I’ve got to do is take care of the stump,” Brass said with a smile of satisfaction.
Nearly two weeks before showtime, the towering conifer gave up the ghost in a dramatic fashion as a small crowd of neighbors, schoolchildren and passing commuters looked on.
The Black Hills spruce groaned, crackled and defied gravity. For a few wild moments, the eyes of onlookers swept skyward as work crews hoisted the tree off the ground. Brass snapped photos on his phone, wanting to remember the tree’s humble roots.
It took workers several hours to sever the spruce’s trunk, lift it onto a special trailer and erect it a short distance away at City Hall. En route, even laid on its side, the tree bumped overhead power lines and whacked traffic signals at intersections, leaving behind a trail of pine needles.
Perfect bell shape
Workers had to lop off the evergreen’s bottom boughs, which were too wide for the roundabout plaza where the tree would stand. The plaza was designed in 2012 with the tree lighting in mind, operating as a fountain in the summer and a tree stand in the winter.
It was built around the time organizers were dreaming up ways to expand the event. About five years ago, a group of local business owners came on board, working with the area Chamber of Commerce, the merchant group Discover Anoka and the city to kick up the festivities, Turok said. A $3,000 grant from Twin Cities Gateway, a regional visitors bureau, has helped kindle interest beyond Anoka through advertising.
Thousands now come for an evening of bonfires, Santa mingling and horse-drawn trolley rides. The countdown to the tree lighting at the Anoka City Hall plaza will begin Saturday at 5:59 p.m., heralding the moment Turok waits for all year.
With “O Tannenbaum” playing, the light-studded spruce will have a last, glowing hurrah in downtown, far removed from its anonymous life in Brass’ yard.
Brass said he plans to be there — his first time attending. With him will be his 5-year-old grandson, Tyson, ready to flip the switch.