The journey of Omaha’s official Christmas tree

Dec. 5, 2023, 6 a.m. ·

Official Tree of Christmas and family
The Croy family stands outside the morning their tree will be harvested on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023. Steve Croy (far right) said they were sad it had to go, but they're glad it could bring happiness to the community. (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media)

Listen To This Story

The Croy family stood outside on an early Monday morning bundled in coats, gloves and layers of blankets.

They talked quietly to each other, asking if someone wanted a bagel, if someone wanted coffee.

But they weren’t outside just to eat breakfast. They were outside to say goodbye to the 42-foot evergreen in front of their La Vista home.

They were joined by staff from the Omaha Durham Museum, including Dawn Myron, the director of communications and her team. Myron started the day early by greeting the crowd in the cul-de-sac as well as anyone watching the Durham Museum’s livestream video.

“Just a little chill in the air today,” she said. “We are here today to harvest the tree with Union Pacific. We’re waiting for the Union Pacific trucks to arrive.”

Myron paused her speech as she saw the Union Pacific trucks turn into the cul-de-sac.

Union Pacific workers walked toward the green suburban home with their white hard hats and their tree-cutting gear.

Union Pacific Workers harvest tree
Union Pacific workers harvest the official tree of Omaha every year. Some individuals have been doing so for a decade. (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media News)

The Omaha tradition of harvesting a tree for the community to enjoy during the holidays dates back to the 1930s. Back then, the tree would travel by train from the Pacific Northwest. Now, it comes from local families who submit their tree for the opportunity to be donated. The trees would have otherwise had to be taken down due to health and safety hazards.

Myron said there are a few qualifications the trees must meet to be considered for Omaha’s official Christmas tree: it has to have a single trunk, a nice shape and stand more than 40-feet tall. Every year, the museum receives around 30-40 tree submissions. When the museum chose the Croy tree, Steve answered the phone. He said after hearing the news, he felt “kind of like a kid on Christmas morning.”

The Croy’s tree was planted in 1985. And it was pretty well known in the neighborhood.

tree in air
This year's official Christmas tree of Omaha was well-known throughout the La Vista suburbs where the Croy family lives. Neighbors stood outside with the family as the tree was harvested from the Croy family's front yard on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023. (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media)

One neighbor walked out his front door to greet the Croy family, who were still standing in front of their tree. He let the family know his kids were disappointed the tree would no longer be a staple of the circle.

“You know, we had all the kids over yesterday and we should have taken a snap because each one of them went ‘oh my gosh,’” the neighbor said. “They remember Bob putting up the lights.”

Robert Croy, or Bob as his neighbors remember him, planted the tree and then decorated it every winter with lights. His son Steve said the day is bittersweet for the whole family—as they’re donating it in honor of Robert who passed away in 2016.

“In fact, one of my nieces wouldn't come because she didn't want to see it get cut down. She knows it's for a good cause, but she didn't want to watch it happen,” he said.

Nick Haley stands in front of the tree that was harvested on the morning of Monday, Nov. 13, 2023. He has participated in the tree harvesting for many years. (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media)

The Croy family watched as the Union Pacific workers started their work.

The tree is attached to a hook and slowly laid down on the flatbed of a truck. The Croy family heads toward their cars to follow its procession to downtown Omaha, where a large crowd is waiting at the doors of Union Station.

A crowd of museum volunteers stood on the sidewalk peering over each other's shoulders to get the first sneak peak of the tree: “Woo hoo! Very excited…really really excited I can’t wait! It’s the best day of the year.”

One volunteer shouts excitedly into a walkie talkie: “Here it comes! People come outside!”

The crowd rushed to the closed-off street. The tree was so wide, it almost took up two lanes.

The volunteers clapped their hands: “We have a tree! We have a tree! It is wider than last year’s. Looking at it, I’m pretty sure it is.”

Stephanie Smutz stands in the crowd with her 3-year-old twin girls Charlotte and Savannah. Their dad and Stephanie’s husband Keegan, cut down the tree and has been on the tree harvesting team for eight years. She said what she’s most excited for is “watching it fit through the doors, watching it pop through and get [dragged], it’s really neat.”

For the twins, the tree arriving just serves as a signal for their favorite part of the year: a visit from Santa Claus.

Myron, the museum’s director of communications hosted a livestream before the tree was pulled through a wide garage-like opening and into the lobby of Union Station.

“We’ve got one truck pulling it in today, last year we had two, but we think we’re gonna get it in with one this year,” she said. “We will be backing up, getting everyone out of the way in a little bit. Because when they start pulling it, they’re not going to stop. So we’re going to back up…here it goes!”

Tree at museum
A crowd of museum volunteers and others watch the tree be maneuvered from the street, between flag poles and into the garage-like door opening of Union Station on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023. (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media)

The entire lobby is filled with the scent of pine as a truck honks its horn and yanks the wide tree through the door opening. Dust floats in the air and some branches break, but the tree is whole and ready for beach ball-sized ornaments and the 1,000 feet of lights to be lit for the holiday season.

Kate Spielman and her family used to watch the tree come to the museum from through the windows of their home down the street. Eventually, her younger brother Bob Spielman became one of the Union Pacific workers who goes up in the tree to attach it to the hook. Now, the Spielman family along with 95-year-old Lucy Spielman, watches the tree in person. Kate said the process means a lot to the family.

“It’s to honor the Durham Heritage Museum, to kick off the Christmas season in Omaha and Union Pacific does such a great job with this Christmas tree every year here at the museum,” she said.

Nick Haley, who has been on the Union Pacific tree harvesting team for about ten years, said he has always enjoyed being a part of the Omaha tradition.

“It’s great to give back to the community. I think it’s important, a lot of people enjoy it,” he said.

His favorite part is hanging the tree up and in place.

Meanwhile, back at the Croy house, Steve Croy said he has a plan.

“You know, there's a little sadness about it being gone and everything. But at least I know that it's going for a good purpose, a good cause. And so, you know, we'll just get used to it. I'll probably plant another tree here next summer or something,” he said.

Robert Croy’s tree will stay up in its new home until Sunday, Jan. 7.