Where you’ll find Christmas trees on rooftops

Every holiday season, this Tennessee town twinkles in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains.

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," Brewer added. 

"It helps to get you in the holiday tradition."

According to Brewer, the lights are turned on by 6 p.m. the day after Thanksgiving.

"That's when we light our large, 48-foot tall Christmas tree that we have down in our city center. And so, we light that at six o'clock, and we want all the lights to go on at the same time," Brewer said.

A Christmas origin story

The rooftop lights 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.

"One of the highlighted rooftops, I like to say, is the UT Medical Center," Brewer said. "They have multiple trees on the top of their rooftops, and that's one of the first rooftop trees that you see when you enter the city."

Shine on

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," said Brewer.

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," said Brewer. "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 magic

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.

"Christmas is our most wonderful time of the year," said Brewer, as the city of Knoxville starts planning for the holiday right after the Fourth of July.

"It is something that we don't take lightly, and we are just so very proud of it," added Brewer. "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."