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Community Christmas Tree Is North Salem Tradition

NORTH SALEM, N.Y. - The story of the North Salem Community Christmas Tree begins shortly after World War I, according to North Salem Historical Society records, when Thomas Hylan and Donald Torcellini asked H. Hobart Keeler if they could construct a Christmas tree on his property, across the road from Hylan’s house.

With Keeler’s approval they constructed a large faux tree from fir branches and chicken wire. Keeler was so pleased with the effect that the next year he purchased the largest fir he could find and had it planted on the same spot.

In 1926 Mr. Keeler deeded the quarter acre to the Town of North Salem, stipulating that it could only be used for a community Christmas tree. It was decorated with the latest in electric lighting and adorned with wrapped presents for the neighborhood children. Throughout the years, local residents Harold Milligan and Rohna McKenna, president of the North Salem Improvement Society, rolled in on Christmas Eve, decked out as Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus, waving and calling “Ho-Ho-Ho!”

Long-time resident Joan van Scoy says of the tree ceremony, “They’d been doing it long before I came to North Salem in 1950. It was a very pleasant start to Christmas Eve. They served hot and cold cider and cookies.”

Mrs. van Scoy’s son, Peter, remembers going there as a little boy. “Santa would arrive in an open car, a World War II Jeep. He had gifts for all the girls and boys wrapped in red and green. Green for the girls and red for the boys -- or vice versa. Everybody sang Christmas carols.”

Mrs. van Scoy adds that once Peter grew up, “he drove the fire truck for Santa.” Peter did it for years, he explains. “Until just a few years ago. Those are my grandparents in the old photo.”

By the 1940’s Keeler’s original tree had simply out grown its decorative proportions, so a second tree was planted. In 1990 the second tree was struck by lightning on the same day that “Santa” Harold Milligan passed away. Its replacement was dedicated to Milligan. 

Recently the tree has been replaced yet again, through the generosity of Triple E Nurseries and other donors. A memorial plaque to H. Hobart Keeler is mounted on the nearby stone wall and two bronze plaques dedicated to Harold Milligan and Rohna McKenna are placed near the bench where Santa traditionally sits to distribute his gifts.

Supervisor Warren Lucas describes the lighting of the Community Tree on Christmas Eve as “one of the longest running traditions in North Salem.”

North Salem’s Traditional Community Christmas Tree is located just east of the Balanced Rock.

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