By Erick Johnson
Morgan Park resident Catherine Townsend has made a 107-year-old Chicago holiday tradition sparkle. For the first time in the city’s history, Townsend is the first resident in Chicago to donate the Christmas tree in Millennium Park. She is also the first Black donor to hold the honor of one of Chicago’s oldest traditions.
Decades after she planted a small tree in her front yard, Morgan’s now 45-foot tall spruce is Chicago’s official Christmas tree, standing tall in Millennium Park, decorated with over 65,000 Christmas lights and 25,000 feet of wire.
It was lit up without a tree lighting ceremony because of the coronavirus pandemic, but many residents watched on YouTube. Townsend was among the few people who saw the tree lit up in person.
While Townsend is the first Black donor from Chicago, she is not the first in the city’s history. In 2013, Terri Moore from South Holland, donated that year’s Christmas tree on the tradition’s 100th Anniversary.
There are fewer Black homeowners in Chicago than white, and not many have towering spruces in their front yards. But Townsend, a retired Chicago Public Schools teacher was one of them.
A retired Chicago Public Schools teacher, Townsend’s tree was picked from nearly 50 nominations at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE). On its website, DCASE said the city requires that entries be located less than 50 miles from Chicago’s Loop and that preference will be given to trees within 15 miles of Chicago. Townsend’s home in Morgan Park is 16.4 miles south of the Loop, making her achievement even more extraordinary.
During a telephone conversation with the Crusader, Townsend said being Chicago’s first Black Christmas tree donor “means so much to me. There’s so much negative news about us. It’s so wonderful. We’re not always acknowledged for the positive things we’re doing.”
An avid gardener, Townsend planted the tree in her large front yard in 1985. She told the Crusader that her neighbor helped her do it. The tree grew over the years, growing as high as Townsend’s three-story home. Townsend said she never decorated the tree, which sits among several evergreens in her yard.
Townsend’s daughter, Sherri Mitchell, entered the tree into the city’s contest to be Chicago’s official Christmas tree.
Mitchell also believed that the spruce was growing too large for the home. Townsend this year put the house up for sale after moving to an assisted living facility four years ago. Mitchell said the tree would likely have to be cut down before they sold the home.
On Friday, November 6, city workers cut down the tree and placed it on a flatbed truck. The following Monday, the tree was installed at Millennium Park at the intersection of Washington and Michigan Avenue, where it will remain until January 7.
Chicago’s Christmas tree tradition is one of the oldest in the country.
The first tree was a 35-foot Douglas Spruce lit up in 1913 in Grant Park by Mayor Carter Harrison. In 1966, the Christmas tree tradition moved to Daley Plaza, which was then Civic Center Plaza. In 2010, the city began holding a contest through an online poll to choose a Christmas tree donor. In 2015, the Chicago Christmas Tree tradition was moved to Millennium Park.
Before this year, all of the city’s official Christmas trees were donated from residents in outlying suburbs outside Chicago. This Thanksgiving, Townsend is grateful to be the first Black Christmas tree donor in the city’s history.
“God is good,” she told the Crusader. “To see this tree in Millennium Park is so wonderful and I’m so proud.’