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News Story
Updated: 12/30/2012 08:00:23AM

Tree burning: Bartow’s way to celebrate

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S.L. Frisbie

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In New York, they lower a six-ton ball made of Waterford crystal to celebrate the arrival of the New Year.

They do not, as is commonly reported, “drop” the ball. If they did, the city of New York would have to sweep up 11,875 pounds of very expensive glass from Times Square.

In Canada, they go ice fishing in rural Quebec to celebrate the final day of the year. Ice fishing, eh?

In Mexico, Spain, Costa Rica, and Guatemala, they eat 12 grapes at midnight on New Year’s Eve, one with each chime of the hour, and make 12 wishes.

In Italy, Spain, and probably a few other places where they haven’t owned up to it, they wear red underwear.

In Belgium, farmers wish their animals a Happy New Year.

In the Czech Republic, the president gives a New Year’s Day speech. Yawn.

In France, party guests eat a cake containing a small china doll. The finder is declared king or queen “and gets to wear a gold paper crown and choose his or her partner,” according to Wikipedia.

“This tradition can last up to two weeks.” Sounds like the royal partnership lasts about as long as a Hollywood marriage. Oh, those French.

In Ecuador, men dress as women. This probably would be frowned on in France.

In quite a few nations, fireworks are lit, as are New Year’s Eve revelers.

In Bartow, Florida, U.S.A., we burn Christmas trees.

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Yes, a few hours before the odometer turns over onto 2013, a pile of Bartow’s discarded Christmas trees will be set afire, the 76th anniversary of the beginning of this tradition.

The event began in 1936, a date I can put forward with a reasonable sense of certainty, partly because most of you were not here then, but mainly because Dad told me 16 years ago that he attended the first one with Louise Kelley, whom he would marry the following year.

That event (the marriage, not the tree burning) carries great significance with me, because without that marriage, I would not be here today; indeed, I would not be anywhere.

For many years, Dad was master of ceremonies for the tree burning.

Some have wondered why you need an MC for a bonfire. It’s because Bartow is a town steeped in tradition, and tradition means doing things the way we have always done them. That’s why.

One New Year’s Eve around the mid-1990s, Dad developed a cold, and asked me to fill in for him. The following year, he suggested that I take over his MC duties.

My spiel has changed little over the years, though I have corrected a few minor errors. I appreciate the fact that the same people, by and large, keep coming out to hear me say the same thing every New Year’s Eve.

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The tree burning was begun at the behest of Nye Jordan, long-time head of Peninsular Telephone Co., a volunteer fireman, and for many years, a Bartow city commissioner. Mr. Nye, as he was addressed by people younger than him — which was most of the English-speaking world — said it was bad luck to have a Christmas tree still in your house past New Year’s Eve.

Dad always suspected that Mr. Nye started that superstition himself, because as a firefighter, he was only too familiar with the danger of having a dried out evergreen in your living room.

A few years ago, someone told me they were familiar with the same superstition, and believed it originated in New Orleans.

At any rate, the tree burning is a tradition of seven-and-a-half decades, though it was discontinued during World War II lest it serve as a beacon to German bombers. We would truly hate to have had one of our tree burnings destroyed by enemy aircraft.

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Thirty-seven years ago, it looked like the tree burning would fade from history, because nobody wanted to be in charge. Eda Marchman, a classmate of mine from Summerlin-by-gosh-Institute, stepped forward and announced that she was taking over. Nobody has tried to take the job away from her.

The growing popularity of artificial trees has resulted in smaller and smaller bonfires in recent years, and the wooden utility pole around which the trees are stacked now towers above the pile.

Many households, upon discovering that their own discarded trees have not been picked up for the event, take them out and pitch them onto the pile near the south end of Mary Holland Park.

Want to experience a bit of local culture? Come join us New Year’s Eve at 6:30.

Bring a lawn chair, some bug repellant, and a willingness to chuckle at the same old anecdotes I’ve been telling for the past 16 years or so, okay?

———

(S. L. Frisbie is retired. Note that he uses the word “discarded” trees, not “live” trees. From the moment they are cut down, they become “dead” trees, but somehow, that term just doesn’t have the same ambiance.)




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