This Friday, thousands of lights and thousands of smiles will glow as they always do when the tallest and most beloved Christmas tree in town flickers to life again in the traditional lighting ceremony that has heralded the start of the holiday season in Albuquerque for nearly 50 years.
The tree, the top of which can be seen from Rio Grande Boulevard west of Old Town, is actually many cut trees, between 100 and 200 of them, sized and fitted into the sleeves of a unique 55-foot steel structure, one of only two produced in the country.
Since 1994, the iconic tree has graced the courtyard of Plaza Don Luis in Old Town, a holiday gift to the city by a “secret” Santa named Henry Aceves, the longtime Old Town merchant who saved the unique structure twice from the scrap metal heap.
Even after we lost him to a long illness in 2017, his family carried on the tradition of Henry’s tree for the enjoyment of thousands.
Now we are losing Henry’s tree. This season will be its last.
The Old Town Basket and Rug Shop, which Aceves opened on Romero Street in 1982, and the adjacent Plaza Don Luis, which he built in 1993, were sold earlier this year and are now home to the Noisy Water Winery tasting room.
Although family members say the sale documents included an agreement to continue putting up a Christmas tree every year, it apparently did not specify that it be Henry’s tree.
Noisy Water owner Jasper Riddle said that, while he appreciates the legacy of Henry’s tree, it’s time for something new.
“We want to put our own spin with our own tree, something more sustainable,” said Riddle, adding that he is not comfortable with cutting down so many live trees for the structure, even though they come from a tree farm.
Riddle said he’s contemplated using a – gasp – artificial tree next year instead of Henry’s tree, or perhaps a single, stately, cut tree. Perhaps several trees, each representing a charity or cause. Perhaps a month of tree lightings.
Whatever he decides, Riddle wants to assure the public that there will still be a Christmas tree and Albuquerque will still have a big lighting ceremony.
“I’m not the Grinch,” he said. “I’m not killing Christmas. If anything, I want to embellish the tradition, not take it away.”
We’ve lost so much lately because of COVID-19 – last year, Henry’s tree went up, but the lighting ceremony was virtual. Maybe that’s why losing Henry’s tree altogether stings.
So, a little history.
The tree made its first appearance in 1975, the frame commissioned by Albuquerque beer and bank business magnate George Maloof Sr. for the Downtown plaza in front of the First National Bank, of which he was majority shareholder.
Maloof paid the members of the Old Town Optimist Club to put up the massive tree, the money earned going toward a Christmas party for underprivileged children.
The tree lighting, always held the first Friday in December, became the biggest event of the season. Even after Maloof’s death in 1980, his family continued the tree tradition.
In 1993, the Maloofs sold off their banking interests and gave the tree frame to the Optimist Club. But, without a benefactor, the tree appeared destined to become a part of Christmas past.
That’s the first time Aceves stepped in.
Plaza Don Luis was under construction at the time. Moving the tree there, Aceves believed, would bring holiday business to Old Town.
It would also be another way to give back to the community, the continued fulfillment of a vow he made in the 1970s when he was a rancher from the Manzano Mountains with big dreams to open a successful shop in Old Town and little knowledge of how to do it.
Aceves, who achieved his dreams, continued to pay the Old Town Optimist Club to construct the tree and hold the children’s party. But, as the years passed, the club’s membership aged and dwindled to a point where they were no longer able to fulfill the tree duties. They contemplated selling the frame to a Memphis business or for scrap metal.
But Aceves stepped in again and bought the frame, his family assuming the arduous tree tasks – hauling them from a tree farm near Rociada, nestled at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, constructing the tree, stringing the 400-plus strands of some 10,000 LED lights, and hanging hundreds of bright red bows and sparkling white snowflakes.
“Uncle Henry downplayed it, but it’s a lot of work,” Aceves’ nephew Ruben Martinez said. “He assembled an army of us, and it takes an army. Quality control isn’t an issue because it’s family. It’s a sense of pride.”
The city of Albuquerque joined their efforts, adding the popular Old Town Holiday Stroll on the same night as the tree lighting, still held the first Friday in December each year.
When his health began to fail in 2013, Aceves turned to nephew Martinez to carry on the tradition of the tree. It was, Martinez told me, the honor of his life.
I am lucky enough to be one of many honorary members of the Aceves-Martinez family – Laura Martinez, who managed the Old Town shop for decades and is one of Aceves’ sisters-in-law, has been one of my best friends since junior high. To them, everybody is a friend and every friend is family.
Yet, for years, I was unaware of Aceves’ crucial role in the Christmas tree. But that was Henry, his benevolence not blasted from the mountaintops, but humbly, quietly dispersed.
In November 2010, I wrote about Aceves and his tree – our tree, as he would remind me – and, a year later, he was awarded the Harry E. Kinney Good Neighbor Award by the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce for saving the tree.
“He never wanted to take full credit, even though the majority of the money it took to put up the tree came from his pocket,” said his wife, Karen Aceves.
She admits to being disappointed with Riddle’s decision to mothball Henry’s tree. But, just like the Old Town Optimist Club, her family is growing older and the task of the tree is becoming harder.
It’s time, she said, for new traditions to take root.
“The new owners of Plaza Don Luis will put up a tree that will be grand, I’m sure,” she said. “Whether you can see it while traveling south on Rio Grande is questionable. But we only have good wishes for them.”
Daughters Erin and Ashley will look for a new home or a new benefactor for Henry’s tree, she said.
But, even when the lights go dark and that last branch is taken down, it will also be time, always be time, to remember the man who saved Christmas, whose generosity reminds us of the goodness of the season year after year after year.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org.