“The Nation’s Christmas Tree”: Get to Know the 268-Foot-Tall General Grant Sequoia

General Grant giant sequoia in the Kings Canyon National Park
narvikk/ iStock

There are a handful of famous Christmas trees that get a lot of attention this time of year. Take the Norway spruce at Rockefeller Center, one of the world’s most iconic examples of the Christmas tradition that has appeared in countless movies and TV shows. And there’s the National Christmas Tree on the grounds of the President’s Park in Washington D.C., which is decorated annually. But did you know that an impossibly high sequoia tree in California bears the distinction of being “The Nation’s Christmas Tree”?

That tree, officially known as the General Grant Tree, is one of the tallest in the world. Curious to know more? Read on! 

Location

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The General Grant is a giant sequoia tree located within the Grant Grove section of the Kings Canyon National Park in central California. 

Roughly two decades after the General Grant was declared The Nation’s Christmas Tree (more on that below), the U.S. Postal Service recognized the nearby city of Sanger as the Nation’s Christmas Tree City.

Size

According to the National Park Service, the General Grant measures 268.1 feet (88.7 meters) high, with a ground circumference of 107.5 feet (32.8 meters).

The General Grant sits high on many “world’s tallest tree” lists, though its status depends on who you ask and which factors are taken into consideration. According to the NPS, though, the General Grant can claim the title of second-largest tree in the world. It bears mentioning that there are different ways to measure tree size, and different systems may or may not take branches into account when calculating size. When branches are being measured, the General Grant falls to third place. 

Interestingly, a ranking on such a list is not endlessly ensured. Factors like growth or shedding of branches create changes to those measurements, and wildfires can either partially or completely destroy such trees.

How the General Grant Came to Be Known as The Nation’s Christmas Tree

Per the Sanger District Chamber of Commerce, in 1924, R.J. Senior, then-president of the Chamber, was visiting the General Grant when he found himself standing next to a little girl who exclaimed, “What a lovely Christmas tree that would be.” The following year, Senior was joined by secretary of the Chamber Charles E. Lee, and the two men held a small Christmas ceremony on Christmas Day. Lee wrote to President Calvin Coolidge, who then designated the General Grant to be The Nation’s Christmas Tree in 1926.

“We are gathered here around a tree that is worthy of representing the spirit of America on Christmas Day,” longtime Park Superintendent Colonel John White remarked at one of the first annual gatherings, per NPS. “That spirit is best expressed in the plain things of life, the love of the family circle, the simple life of the out-of-doors. The tree is a pillar that is a testimony that things of the spirit transcend those of the flesh.”

Key Dates From the Tree’s History 

The Nation's Christmas Tree, with a young girl sitting in the foreground, 1910 Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

1867: The giant sequoia is named in honor of Commanding General Ulysses S. Grant, who would be elected president two years later.

April 28, 1926: The General Grant Tree is officially declared The Nation’s Christmas Tree by the United States Department of the Interior. 

Oct. 1, 1949: The U.S. Postal Service recognizes Sanger, California, as “The Nation’s Christmas Tree City.”

March 29, 1956: Via public law 441, the U. S. Congress makes the General Grant Tree a National Shrine. 

Nov. 11, 1956: Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, acting in capacity as a personal representative of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, officially dedicates the General Grant  as a perpetual shrine to fallen members of the U.S. military. It remains the only living shrine in the country, per the NPS.

Annual “Trek to the Tree” and Memorial Service 

An annual trek to the General Grant takes place on the second Sunday of December, with a ceremony taking place at 2:30 p.m. PT at the base of the tree. Dec. 10, 2023 marked the 98th annual trek. 

The ceremony, sponsored by the Sanger District Chamber of Commerce, is the memorial service, which sees members of the NPS place an evergreen wreath at the tree’s base. Musical performances and special event speakers are also included in the festivities.

At the 93rd annual trek in 2019, Sequoia and Kings Canyon Superintendent Woody Smeck, who has since retired, spoke to news outlet Visalia Times Delta. “Giant sequoias are as close as we come to a living relationship with eternity,” he recalled a former ranger saying. “I think that’s a beautiful symbolism for this holiday season.”