Mount Holly Springs — Linus said it best in "A Charlie Brown Christmas" — "I never thought it was such a bad little tree ... Maybe it just needs a little love."
Like the cast of that classic cartoon, the people of Mt. Holly Springs have taken to heart the decoration of a scrawny little evergreen.
In the process, they have created an enduring holiday tradition on a patch of ground by the railroad tracks along a lonely stretch of Route 34.
Set on a raised bed of earth protected by wooden beams, the current tree is actually the fourth or fifth evergreen to be decorated in this fashion.
The original was cut down by unknown culprits at night on Christmas 1998. Brad Whitlock contacted The Sentinel the next day to report the incident.
I remember this story as one of my first assignments with the newspaper. In the headline, we dubbed the villain responsible "a Grinch."
TRADITION BEGAN IN 1996
As the story goes, the original tree was probably growing out of the rocky soil for years before it caught the eye of Whitlock on Christmas Eve 1996.
In a store, Whitlock saw a set of battery-powered lights he thought would look nice in the tree. Out of impulse, he and his wife Jennifer went out and decorated it with the lights.
Sometime that night, someone removed the lights, prompting Whitlock to call the police. At first, he thought the police took down the lights out of concern they posed a traffic hazard. That was not the case at all. The lights had been stolen.
For the next two years, someone kept decorating what locals call the "Charlie Brown Tree" every time a holiday rolled around. They would hang hearts on its branches on Valentine's Day, shamrocks on St. Patrick's Day and pumpkins for Halloween. The identity of this person was a mystery.
This continued until Christmas Day 1998 when the original tree was cut down, touching off outrage in the surrounding community. Someone put up a sign with words painted in orange: "To whoever cut down the tree: You are a lousy person."
Standing at the foot of the sign — as if in memorial — was a pot of soil wrapped in red foil with a tiny sprig of pine. It could have ended there very easily, but the people of Mt. Holly Springs would not have it. A new tree was planted in the same general area as the first.
Since then, the Charlie Brown Tree in its many incarnations has been run over by a vehicle, clubbed with a stick and cut down at least another time. Replacements were always planted in the same general area as the original tree.
A COMMUNITY TREE
Romaine Toner is the latest person tasked with trimming the community tree. She became caretaker about 12 years ago when the woman who used to decorate the tree wanted someone else to take over. They knew each other from the ladies auxiliary of VFW Post 7343.
"I just like to do it," Toner said. "I try to decorate it for most every holiday. If it's not decorated, I hear about it. People tell me how nice it is. They tell me never to quit."
Local residents also get into the act. Last Christmas season, someone donated the three wise men that are currently on display. A week later, someone from Gardners included a baby Jesus in a manger. More recently, someone put out a bowl with some cookies, perhaps for Santa Claus.
No matter the holiday, Toner includes yellow ribbons or patriotic colors as a salute to those who serve in the military. This was especially true after Army Master Sgt. Scott R. Ball, a local Guardsman, was killed in an ambush in the Kunar Province in Afghanistan on Aug. 27, 2007.
"He was a relation of mine," Toner said. Other times, she decorated the tree in memory of the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the seven astronauts who died in the space shuttle Columbia disaster of Feb. 1, 2003.
"Romaine is very dedicated," said Lois Stoner, a local hairdresser. "She always thinks about what she is going to put on the tree. She enjoys giving that to the town."
Stoner added that the Charlie Brown Tree has become something very sentimental to the people of Mt. Holly Springs. So much so, the local Holly Pharmacy even made gift cards with the tree on it.
In 2008, the borough planted the latest tree in the raised bed for better protection. Over the years, The Charlie Brown Tree has achieved some celebrity status with visitors from as far as Florida and Alaska stopping to have a look, Toner said.