Since 1981, this small town in the province of Perugia, Umbria, has celebrated the holiday season with a giant Christmas tree, outlined in coloured lights. Located on the Monte Ingino, the tree reaches up the slope of the mountain over a distance of 750 metres and covers an area of 30 square kilometres. “It’s a real challenge to make it happen. It requires a real commitment,” says Lucio Costantini, the president of the committee of volunteers who set up, take down and maintain the tree equipment each year.
The star alone is 1,000 square metres, explains Costantini, an engineer by day who started out as a volunteer himself about six years ago.According to the committee’s website, about 200 lights make up the shape of the star, another 260 lights are strung up to draw the outline of the tree, and 270 more lights form the decorations. The volunteers lay 8,500 metres of cables to connect the lights up the mountain. The initiative is entirely non-profit, self-sustaining and volunteer-run. In 1991, it set the Guinness World Record for world’s tallest Christmas tree.
Gubbio, Photography of the Municipality of Gubbio
Over the years, the tree has kept largely the same footprint, Costantini says, but updated equipment and the addition of more coloured lights are among the changes introduced over the decades. In fact, part of the electricity used to light the tree over the season (an estimated 35 kW) is now generated from photovoltaic cells installed on the roof of the committee’s headquarters.
The tree is lit each December 7 with the help of a community leader or dignitary, and remains lit until at least the Epiphany. In the past, dignitaries such as Pope Francis and Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano have “flipped the switch” remotely with the help of a tablet computer. But preparations begin three months before that, Costantini says.
A group of about 50 volunteers spanning 18 to 84 years old work away at it every Sunday, he says, and even after the tree is lit, they’re the ones who make repairs and change light bulbs. The group estimates about 1,900 hours of work go into it each year. Once the season ends, the cables, bulbs and related equipment are stored in a warehouse where repairs can be made before the next lighting.
The word has spread about the massive decoration, Costantini says, especially in recent years thanks to social media, which makes it very easy to raise the tree’s – and the town’s – profile. “In the last three or four years there’s been a true tourist season,” says Oderisi Nello Fiorucci, who is responsible for marketing and tourism for the municipality of Gubbio. “It’s tied uniquely to the tree.”
While Gubbio has a healthy tourist economy in the warmer months attracting tourists to its medieval sites and countryside, Christmas was a dead season tourism-wise until, slowly, the giant tree started drawing people to the city, he says. Holiday visitors hail primarily from Rome, Naples and Milan, Fiorucci says, but Gubbio also saw a notable increase in foreign tourists last Christmas.
In all, there were roughly 25 per cent more visitors over the holiday period spanning December 2015 and January 2016 compared to the same time the previous year, Fiorucci says. Over time, the town and local businesses have launched wintertime activities to coincide with the tree’s season, including concerts, presepe displays, a skating rink in Piazza Grande, Christmas markets and children’s activities. “Every year there’s an added project,” he says. For example, for 2016, the new attraction is a Ferris wheel with a view of the mountain and the tree. The bed and breakfasts that used to shut down for the winter season are staying open thanks to demand, Fiorucci points out.
There’s no shortage of support to keep the tree tradition alive after so many years, Costantini says. For him, it’s about the children, some of whom have grown up celebrating the holidays at the foot of the giant tree and who are sad to see the lights go out every January. “We dedicate ourselves to it for them as well,” he says. “To deprive them of this joy isn’t right.”