Dave Molter

A unity carol

Gathering under the Unity Tree

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You’re driving along a country road one December night, the kids in the back seat of the Hyundai merrily singing along to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” and you notice an eerie glow coming from the woods.


“What is that, Dad?” the kids shout excitedly.


“Let’s go see!” you answer, almost breathlessly.


So you stop the car, grab the sawed-off Louisville Slugger you keep under the driver’s seat – the idea being to foul off a carjacker’s bullets – and lead the kids on a merry chase to investigate. Giggles abound.


About 50 yards into the forest, you come upon a 12-foot fir tree, fiery with multicolored lights and sparkling baubles of gold, red, blue and green, a silver star atop its tallest branch. A few icicles – real ones. The kids are agog, and although you long ago became immune to the emotion associated with this wonderful season, you feel a tear slide down your cheek.


Yes … even your Grinchified heart melts at the sight of a Unity Tree.


This vision of Christmas Present is brought to you by Highmark Inc., which again this year will sponsor the six-story Unity Tree – or what used to be called Horne’s Christmas Tree. If you’re very young, you may not remember the Joseph Horne Co. department store building, erected in 1879 and still standing at the corner of Stanwix Street and Penn Avenue, Downtown. Horne’s first erected the artificial tree on the outside corner of the building in 1953. A 10-inch black-and-white TV was still a luxury that year, so you can appreciate why a six-story lighted Christmas tree drew scads of people Downtown, even before Light Up Night began in 1960. Horne’s folded before the turn of century 21, but the tree remains, sponsored by Highmark, which now owns the building. Even as the Unity Tree, it’s still pretty impressive.


But isn’t it ironic that the fruit of the Unity Tree is disunity?


On Nov. 1, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s online story about Light Up Night 2012 included a reference to the Unity Tree lighting. It was only scant minutes before comments appeared, from those bemoaning the choice of name and from those chastising the ones who bemoaned the choice of name.


I’m not crazy about the name “Unity Tree.” But neither was I enamored of “Sparkle Season.” Some may have forgotten that from 1994 to 2002, the period between Light Up Night and Christmas Day became, officially, “Sparkle Season” in Pittsburgh. Back then, my reaction was rather visceral – take your Sparkle Season and shove it.


After almost two decades, I’ve mellowed. Shove your “Unity Tree,” but only if you feel like it. “Unity Tree” does not offend me. I’ll still call it a Christmas tree. I don’t insist that you do likewise.


It kinda bothers me that Highmark has attached itself to the Unity Tree to garner free publicity, especially when rumor has it the decorations for said tree are made from the paperwork for denied claims. But Horne’s did it first. And the health insurance giant is not alone in this practice. This year also marks the debut of the Peoples Gas Holiday Market – featuring a 576-square-foot Santa’s house along with an Alpine-style village of gift shops featuring wares from Austria, Germany, Poland, Russia and Turkey. No one seems to be complaining about these other nations trying to commandeer our American Christmas.


There also will be the Bottom Dollar Food Sounds of the Season Parade, scheduled to happen on what the Downtown Partnership is calling “First Holiday Saturday.”


That’s Nov. 17 for those of you who don’t have the Unity Calendar.


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