Pioneer Square tree lighting a long-term tradition

The annual post-Thanksgiving tree lighting ceremony in Pioneer Courthouse Square is as much a Portland tradition as the Rose Festival. The event draws thousands of people to “Portland’s living room” for hours of caroling, Starbuck’s beverages and holiday cheer. In addition to aesthetic value, the Pioneer Square tree has a wealth of history and holiday cheer behind it.

This year’s tree is the 19th to appear downtown since the square opened in 1984. The 75-foot Douglas fir was donated by Stimson Lumber Co. and, in true Portland fashion, came from a sustainable forest near Gaston. Most trees have come from Oregon, with the farthest travel in 1997 from western Idaho. Jennifer Polver, executive director for Pioneer Courthouse Square, remembers that year distinctly.

“We almost didn’t have a tree that year,” Polver said. “It was scary – we were driving around Portland in late October and early November looking for trees. At the last minute, a security guard called a friend at Crown Pacific, who stepped in and donated a tree.”

The Idaho tree caused quite a fluff when it arrived and people found out it hadn’t come from Oregon. “For some reason people were highly disturbed that it had come from 20 miles over the border [into Idaho],” Polver said. “We got so much flak for an arbitrary line on a map. The front page of the Oregonian said ‘Idaho-ho-ho,’ and people never forgot it. So ever since then, we’ve made sure all the trees came from Oregon!”

Since 1997, local companies have stepped up and donated their time and services to ensure Pioneer Square has a holiday tree. “It’s a huge donation, from the actual tree to dropping it in the forest to transporting it to the square and grooming it, it’s really a cooperative effort,” Polver said. “Campbell Crane has donated their time year after year, and it’s truly a partnership to get the tree lit.”

Polver noted that if the square were to pay for all the services, it would cost $15,000-20,000 just to the tree companies, closer to $50,000 including the trucking and aerial crane companies, and with all the media promotion the whole event would cost close to $200,000. All that is covered through cash sponsors and donations, and it takes “a serious community effort to find the resources and make it feasible,” she said. “It’s a crazy process, but it’s great.”

With the downsized economy comes a slightly downsized tree – in past years, trees have been as tall as 90 feet, with this year’s tree standing 75 feet tall, the average height over the past several years. It weighs in at 9,000 pounds and has over 5,000 lights, most of which were purchased through a fundraising effort in conjunctions with United Way. The charity sold the lights at $10 apiece to raise money for holiday-related causes.

Last Friday’s lighting ceremony was marked by heavy rain and an unusual number of umbrellas for traditionally damp Oregonians. Polver noted that since she’s worked with the square, this year was definitely the wettest. Stephanie Leeper, event director for Pioneer Courthouse Square, said that despite Oregon’s traditionally wet winters, overall the tree lighting ceremonies have been dry more often than they’ve been wet.

“Even when they’ve forecasted rain, we’ve always gotten a break of 30-45 minutes when we were lighting the tree that it didn’t rain,” she said. “This is the first year we’ve gotten dissed.”

The tree comes down the day after Christmas to prepare for the annual New Year’s Eve celebration in the square and is recycled in a variety of ways.

“In the past several years we’ve given it to Portland Public Schools for them to use in their wood shop classes,” Polver said. “We’ve also given it to Habitat for Humanity, and they cut it up into long boards to use for building houses.”

Over the past 19 years, there haven’t been any terrible mishaps involving the tree. “High winds are always an, ‘oh god,’ moment,” Polver said. About three years ago there were really high winds, but the tree stayed up. Polver also worries the lights won’t go on. Hollywood Lights and United Rentals work to get the tree wired and flip the switch, and “they’ve always come through,” she said. “Last year we had a naked guy storm the stage at the New Year’s Eve celebration, but we don’t have any crazy stories about the tree.”

Attendance varies with the weather, and though the total capacity of Pioneer Square is about 12,000 people, event directors forecast for up to 20,000 attendees each year. This year, particularly because of the weather, crowds were estimated at 15,000, and enough people show up that Tri-Met shuts down Max and bus service for the several blocks surrounding the square.

The event used to happen at around 7 p.m., but several years ago it was moved up to 5:30 p.m. to catch the downtown shopping and after-work crowd. “The spikes in revenue for downtown businesses are huge,” Leeper noted. “It’s been good for all of us downtown. It’s a more convenient time for people to shop and eat.”

Although much of November and December are consumed with coordinating the tree lighting and other holiday events, running the square is a year-round job. “We’ll be holding over 289 events in the coming year, and it’s a huge scope of work for five little bodies in an office,” Polver said. “But attendance is up, downtown is getting more crowded, and it’s nice to have a place people can come and get a reprieve in the chaos.”

The tree will stay lit through Christmas, when it will come down in preparation for the schedule New Year’s Eve party. For upcoming events at Pioneer Courthouse Square, visit their web site at or call the information line at (503) 223-1613.