KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – In downtown Knoxville, the evening skyline sparkles as lights in the shape of Christmas trees dot the city’s rooftops.
"It is just an absolutely lovely surprise," said Kyndra Brewer, the director of special events with the city of Knoxville.
"Once the holidays hit, it's so nice to drive into town and all of a sudden you see these Christmas trees that are just popped up on buildings all over the interstate," she added.
According to Brewer, the lights are turned on by 6 p.m. the day after Thanksgiving. That is also when the town lights its 48-foot-tall Christmas tree in the city center, called Market Square.
"It helps to get you in the holiday tradition," she said.
A Christmas origin story
The east Tennessee rooftop Christmas trees date back more than 25 years.
According to Brewer, it was started by former Mayor Victor Ashe, who thought the best way for people to remember a city during the holidays is to see something that they hadn't seen before — and that was the rooftop trees.
"When the rooftop trees started, the city was behind putting out a campaign to try and get the buildings to produce trees and put them on rooftops," Brewer said. "It's been going on for so many years now that we no longer really need the campaign."
Today, businesses and building owners design and install their own rooftop trees. For example, Brewer noted that one of the highlighted rooftops is the one on the University of Tennessee's Medical Center, which lies near the heart of the city.
The hospital installs multiple trees on their rooftops and, given the hospital's location by the interstate, their roof and their rooftop trees are the first many visitors see when they arrive at Knoxville during the holidays.
The tradition has also spread beyond the trees’ original downtown footprint.
"We also have trees within all the little hidden communities within Knoxville, all the different neighborhoods out in the county," Brewer said.
According to Brewer, the number of rooftop trees has fluctuated throughout the years, as some people lost their businesses during the 2008 recession and as hailstorms damaged the rooftops of Knoxville’s many historic buildings.
Despite these hurdles, the rooftop trees always find a way of coming back.
"I can only see the rooftop tree tradition growing," Brewer said. "It's what makes Knoxville so unique, and to be a business to be able to partake in that is something special, as well."
"Christmas is our most wonderful time of the year," she added.
According to Brewer, the rooftop tree tradition shepherded in other events and traditions for the city, such as the downtown Christmas tree lighting during the "Regal Celebration of Lights" and the installation of the city’s skating rink "Holidays on Ice."
The rooftop trees also helped cue the beginning of drive-in Christmas movies, a bicycle parade called "Toward the Lights," in which people dress up as Christmas lights and then the annual Christmas parade.
The City of Knoxville begins preparing for the holidays months in advance – right after the Fourth of July.
"It is something that we don't take lightly, and we are just so very proud of it," Brewer said. "We want people to believe that it's magic — it's the city elves that are coming out, and they're creating this holiday magic for everybody to enjoy."
"We just want to be able to make sure that everybody who travels to Knoxville has a little bit of Christmas cheer in them," she added.