New Canaan resident Scott Gress lost 14 of the 80-foot pine trees on his property when Superstorm Sandy struck two years ago.
Shortly after, it occurred to Gress while driving past God’s Acre that if the iconic fir tree there came down, there’d be no centerpiece for one defining community event for New Canaanites: Christmas Eve caroling.
Gress said he identifies New Canaan strongly with the annual Dec. 24 gathering on the sloping green in front of the Congregational Church.
“There’s no question about it. When I was a little kid, we came here every single Christmas Eve and sang Christmas carols from the time I was six,” Gress said Tuesday morning as he stood near the newly dug hole where a Con Color Fir tree was to be planted within the hour.
“From that time forward, I don’t know that I’ve ever missed Christmas Eve here on God’s Acre,” Gress said. “It is a very big part of that Normal Rockwellian aspect of New Canaan.”
Passersby, town officials and a string of kids from Toddlertime Nursery School stood by on a sunny, warm and blessedly non-humid morning to watch a pair of front-loaders pull the tree off of a flatbed and slide into its new home. Officials say that in about 10 years, the young fir tree will serve as the centerpiece for Christmas caroling.
A change on God’s Acre—particularly one that involves the cherished local caroling tradition—resonates deeply with New Canaan residents. (Here’s one former New Canaanite who ranks the annual community gathering among her favorite things about the town.) The heart of New Canaan and center of the Historic District established June 27, 1963 by a group led by Judge Stanley Mead, God’s Acre itself is said by historians to be an ancient burial ground.
It isn’t clear just how long New Canaanites have been caroling on Christmas Eve by the Congregational Church (website “godsacre.org”) which started New Canaan as a parish.
“It was a very old place for New Canaan and for the Congregational Church, and the bodies were moved to Lakeview and they are not sure that everybody was, so we still in many ways considered it to be hallowed ground,” Lindstrom said.
Known locally as “Church Hill” for more than 100 years, it is part geographically of a ridge that starts at the Long Island Sound shoreline in Darien (Hollow Tree Ridge) and runs continuously through that town (Ox Ridge), then through Waveny (where it crosses the old Norwalk-Stamford boundary, called the “Perambulation Line,” traces of which still can be seen in town), and along our present-day South Avenue corridor, through downtown New Canaan and up along Oenoke Ridge.
According to an article by Dr. Jerome Selinger in the 1965 Historical Society Annual, the area of Oenoke Ridge past West Road used to be called “Upper White Oak Shade,” beyond which the terrain plateaus in what, as early as 1711, was called “the land of Canaan”—a name that was chosen in 1731 for the newly formed parish, . (It wasn’t until years of post-American Revolutionary War peace had settled over New Canaan that the town was incorporated, in 1801.)
The story of how the new tree came to town is itself tied to Christmas. (See video at right to watch the tree arrive in New Canaan and go up.)
Gress, a 1977 New Canaan High School graduate who moved back to New Canaan from New York City in 1991, two years after he and his wife had married, brought their Manhattan Christmas party with them.
“People started bringing bottles of wine, candles, tchotchkes, towels,” Gress recalled. “We were up to here with towels, tchochkes.”
One year Gress, then chairman of the Park and Recreation Commission, decided that instead of bringing a gift, guests could bring a check. The thought at the time was to install grills at Irwin Park for the little leaguers to have a burger after the game—a plan that didn’t materialize.
“The money has been sitting in an account, and we’ve been trying to figure out what to do with it,” Gress said. He reached out to First Selectman Rob Mallozzi (a friend and regular Christmas party guest) to find out about getting a new tree. Soon, Tree Warden Bruce Pauley was brought in, and Pauley got Mike and Suzy Covino involved.
Pauley—2-year-old German shepherd dog Bheema (“assistant tree warden,” Pauley says, “I post the trees and he marks them”)—described the existing fir as a 40- to 45-year-old tree that’s fine healthwise.
“It’s gotten so large, though, and misshapen for a Christmas tree, so what they’re trying to do is establish a new tree, let it grow to the right height, but with a good shape and then we’ll switch all the electric service to the new tree,” he said. “That could be 10 years from now.”
The new tree, about 25 feet high and 20 years old, is expected to grow well in what Mike Covino called “the bull’s eye of God’s Acre.” The fir is from Shagbark Farms in Hillsdale, N.Y., owned by his brother.
“We have been trying to get this done since last fall, but with the early winter we had to postpone it, because we wanted to make sure we could put it in safely,” said Mike Covino, who had owned Frogtown Nurseries for years, now the location of Geiger’s in New Canaan. “It wants a home. It was dug last fall and we’ve been really anxious to get it in. It’s a beautiful, beautiful tree and it’s going to do very well in this particular site. It’s going to get 240 degrees of sun most of the year, which will give it a nice shape and a rounded shape in future years.”
Susan Covino described the Christmas Eve caroling as one of New Canaan’s most important community events.
“We love this town,” she said. “It’s just so beautiful. When everybody sings around the tree, it literally brings tears to your eyes.”