Celebrating 50 years of the Zilker Tree

This weekend is the 50th Anniversary of the Zilker Tree.  It was first lit in 1967.  I know what you're thinking, that's not quite 50 years yet.  Well the Trail of Lights folks are still looking at this as the 50th anniversary, more specifically the 50th lighting.  Even though one year in the 1970's it stayed dark.  

KTBC was there as Mayor Pro-Tem Emma Long lit the tree for the first time.
Everyone was bundled up for the chili night.  Even the legendary Cactus Pryor.

"It is an amazing Austin tradition.  I mean there are so many traditions that have come and gone," said Mario Espinoza, a board member with the Trail of Lights Foundation.

Espinoza says there are more than 3,000 bulbs on the newly-restored historic moontower standing at 155 feet tall.

"This will be the first year that we're using LED bulbs for the lighting of the tree itself.  So it's going to be very, very bright.  It's going to be brighter than ever," Espinoza said.   

Sometime over the past 5 decades, kids started spinning underneath, a great Christmas photo op.  One difference between now and then -- Google Fiber sponsors the tree and they'll take your picture for you and sent it to you to use on social media.

"The camera and the technology will take care of the rest but it will capture that spinning halo effect of the tree that is the quintessential Austin holiday picture card," said Derek Bennett with Google Fiber.  Times have changed.

The Zilker Tree has been lit every year since 1967 -- except for one: 1973.  A national energy crisis encouraged the city to keep the lights off.

"It was in solidarity with everyone else that was asked to conserve energy that year because of the crisis that was occurring.  Not only in the United States but really worldwide," Espinoza said.

Jon Madani got the short end of the stick that year.  He had won an art contest at school and was selected to flip the switch in the lighting ceremony.

"I drew a picture of the tree and it was to my recollection, pretty awful.  But I think what they told me at the time was it embodied the spirit of the tree," he said.

But the excitement didn't last.

"Then I was pulled aside by my mom who said 'well we're not going to light the tree this year' and forgive me because I was in 3rd grade but it had something to do with President Nixon and the energy crisis and so to my knowledge I was the only person that never got the opportunity to light that tree," he said.

A couple of years ago, Mayor Lee Leffingwell invited Madani back to finally make it right.  He lit the tree with that year's contest winners.

Madani says he takes his grandkids to the tree now.  He hopes it's a tradition that will continue for years to come.

"They do what every kid has been doing for 50 years...you get under it, you stand under it, you spin until you pass out.  It's a great night.  you get ice cream and you go home," Madani said.

The Zilker Tree will be lit Sunday, November 27, at 6PM.

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