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    The Castro Holiday Tree

    By Donna Sachet–

    Rockefeller Center in New York has a legendary Christmas tree that brightens the city every year. The White House in our Capitol has a tree each year that reflects the current administration. And the Castro of San Francisco has a holiday tree that has appeared every December for as long as most of us can remember. Attempts to date its origin have been unsuccessful, but for at least the past 10 years, we have had the privilege of overseeing the official lighting of that tree, as we most recently did this past Monday night.

    Over the years, the tree has taken different forms. Some remember a natural pine strewn with paper decorations whose bows unfortunately quickly dried out and whose ornaments melted in an unexpected rainfall. For at least the last 20 years, the Castro Merchants Association has assembled an artificial, but no less attractive, tree in front of Bank of America on Castro Street. The current decorations reflect the six colors of our rainbow flag and a large banner at the corner of 18th and Castro lists the merchants and individuals who make this tradition possible each year with financial contributions. Be sure to check it out and to support those businesses who make sure this annual tradition continues.

    Who remembers the year the tree popped up in a different location? For a single year, a holiday tree was placed in Harvey Milk Plaza. Because of the tight quarters, the tree had to be reshaped to hug the wall of the building, but somehow its blazing lights below the beloved rainbow flag seemed quite appropriate. As much as we have come to expect the tree to be in its current location, who is to say where it may appear next year?

    The official lighting of the tree is truly a neighborhood event, including appearances by the Mayor, City Supervisors, State legislators, and other dignitaries. When Masood Samereie organized the event, he was always careful not only to invite us to officiate, but also to reserve a parking place right in front so that we could be whisked off to our next holiday event! What would such a gathering be without music? Naturally the Official Band of San Francisco, none other than the Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band, provides lively music as the Gay Men’s Chorus, the Lesbian/Gay Chorus (now named Queer Chorus SF), and other choral groups lead the singing.

    There aren’t very many events in the Castro that specifically include children, but the lighting of the Holiday Tree is certainly one. Typically, 20–30 kids appear, not just to observe the magical lighting, but also to witness the arrival of Santa Claus! Yes, somehow, even with all his preparations for the impending delivery of gifts to every home in the world, Santa takes time to drop by the Castro and say hello to the children. Watching those faces light up at his arrival is a sight to behold!

    And no history of the Castro Holiday Tree would be complete without mentioning the name Richard McGarry, who passed away earlier this year. He will always be remembered for his dedication to getting that tree lit and keeping it lit, often in difficult circumstances. Each year, when we did the countdown to the official lighting, Richard could be found buried under branches or atop the building’s roof, making sure that those twinkling lights activated at the perfect moment.

    Next time you are strolling down Castro Street, take a moment to enjoy the Castro Holiday Tree. It is the product of many hands and its lighting each year officially marks the beginning of the holiday season. While you are in the neighborhood, be sure to eat, drink, and shop in the many unique places there. Take in the magical allure of the Castro, dressed up a bit more than usual.  Relish in its history, commemorated by Rainbow Honor Walk plaques and the Gilbert Baker-created rainbow flag. And may your holiday season be full of friends, excitement, and newly created memories!

    Donna Sachet is a celebrated performer, fundraiser, activist, and philanthropist who has dedicated over two decades to the LGBTQ Community in San Francisco. Contact her at

    Published on December 1, 2022