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Albuquerque's distinctive Christmas tree will be retired this year after 3 decades


For decades, Albuquerque, N.M, has displayed a distinctive Christmas tree downtown. It's about 55 feet tall. But if you look closely, as Jasper Riddle bids you to do, you'll see it's not a single tree.

JASPER RIDDLE: It's a metal structure that has 150 slots in it, where you cut 150 trees and put them in there. And it's very, very breathtaking.

SIMON: Tree made of smaller trees as if put together like a Lego construction. The structure has lit up Plaza Don Luis since 1994 but not for much longer.

RIDDLE: I hate seeing after Christmas every year just a pile of dead trees. It's the thing I don't love about the holiday.

SIMON: Jasper Riddle owns the Noisy Water Winery. And he's also one of the new owners of the Plaza Don Luis.

RIDDLE: You know, it's broke water lines and gas lines going in this year, and it's this big, amazing thing. But it's something that we didn't find to be the most sustainable option long term.

SIMON: He consulted with local government and the tree stand's previous owners and decided this will be the tree's last Christmas in the plaza. Well, when that news got out...

RIDDLE: I'm the Grinch. I'm killing Christmas. You know, we are getting all the internet trolls coming out saying, don't support these people. Boycott.

JOLINE GUTIERREZ KRUEGER: The mood is kind of sad.

SIMON: That's Joline Gutierrez Krueger, columnist for the Albuquerque Journal. She wrote about the history of the tree made of trees and how an era was ending in Old Town.

GUTIERREZ KRUEGER: It does cause me some discomfort because, you know, this is Old Town. Old Town is old (laughter).

SIMON: Gutierrez Krueger says the tree spent the first part of its life in front of a bank. The majority shareholder there, George Maloof Sr., paid members of the Old Town Optimist Club to put it up every year. A Christmas party was thrown for underprivileged children. His family kept the tradition going until 1993. And that's when a local merchant, Henry Aceves, took over the project.

GUTIERREZ KRUEGER: He always kept it very quiet that he financed the majority of the costs, which is pretty substantial. This is something he wanted to do, almost as - you know, you might call him a Secret Santa to the community that had done so much for him and his family.

LAURA MARTINEZ: He told me it's about 9 grand. Well, that was back in 1996.

SIMON: Laura Martinez is Henry Aceves' sister-in-law. She helped manage the Old Town Basket and Rug Shop for decades and says that Henry moved the tree to Plaza Don Luis in front of his shop. But the labor, the cost. At first, she thought it was excessive, but her brother-in-law reminded her the tree lighting brought people into Old Town and helped shop owners who helped him when he first got his start there. It also helped local charities to raise money. Henry Aceves died in 2017. His family sold the business to Jasper Riddle with an agreement - a tree would be put up every year. Well, as you heard earlier, the new owner thinks that it's time for a change.

MARTINEZ: Probably, Henry would be the first one to let it go and say, good. I've handed it off to somebody else and they have new ideas.

SIMON: Now some of the new ideas - one giant living tree or a series of trees, maybe a holiday market or a monthlong celebration like they have in Europe. Jasper Riddle says he's contemplating proposals and just wants people, including those who troll him online, to know that he does appreciate what Henry's giant tree symbolized.

RIDDLE: You know, to me, the holiday season is about raising money for those in need and giving love out to your community. And that's what we want to make this about. It's not just the plugging in of one big tree but a month of reminding people what the holiday spirit is.

SIMON: Meanwhile, visitors to Old Town Albuquerque can stroll through Plaza Don Luis and marvel at that magnificent tree made of trees one last holiday season. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.