That's SLO Weird

‘Their Christmas card to the community’: The story behind the Madonnas’ mountaintop tree

Editor’s note: “That’s SLO Weird” explores the things that make San Luis Obispo County so wonderful and so ... well ... weird. Wondering about something weird in SLO County? Send your tips to Gabby Ferreira at gferreira@thetribunenews.com or @Its_GabbyF on Twitter.

The electric tree appears on top of Cerro San Luis every December without fail, adding a sparkling point of light to the mountainous landscape.

It’s a holiday tradition in San Luis Obispo: Get with some friends or family an hour or so before dusk, and hike up to the peak to see the tree all lit up. Take some snacks and water with you, make sure you take plenty of pictures, and don’t forget a flashlight.

If you’re not hiking up to the tree, you probably look for it while walking or driving by the area.

But how does the tree get up there? And when did it start appearing on top of the mountain?

The answer to those questions, in short, has to do with the Madonna family and their late patriarch, Alex Madonna.

Madonna, whose family still owns the top of Cerro San Luis and the majority of the mountain (also known as San Luis Mountain or Madonna Mountain), began putting up the tree more than 30 years ago, according to Clint Pearce, the president of Madonna Enterprises.

The history

The timeline for when the family began putting up the tree varies: Pearce, who’s married to Alex Madonna’s daughter, Connie, said the tree started coming up at Christmas after Alex and Phyllis Madonna built the road leading to the top of the mountain, probably around the mid-1970s.

198612-24MadonnnaTree
Alex and Phyllis Madonna stand at the top of San Luis Obispo Mountain in Dec. 1986 near the Christmas tree they relit this yule season after an absence of many years. The tree lighting started out to be a one day surprise birthday present from Phyllis to Alex, but they decided to keep it lit throughout the holiday season. Although there have been a few complaints and some vandalism to the lighted tree they have received numerous letters thanking them for relighting the mountaintop ornament. The Madonnas think of the tree as their Christmas card to the community. Tony Hertz/Telegram-Tribune first published 12-24-1986 Tony Hertz File

Tribune archives point to the inception of the tree as sometime in the early to mid 1980s, though a November 1986 article said the tree was back on the mountain for the first time in at least six years.

According to that story, the tree lighting started out as a one-day surprise birthday present from Phyllis Madonna to her husband, but they decided to keep it lit throughout the holiday season.

In a Tribune article from 1987, Alex Madonna told this publication that he’d put up the tree “for about 10 years.”

Regardless of the exact timeline, “he made a big splash with it,” Pearce said. “A lot of people loved it, but not everybody.”

The tree was plagued by vandalism in the 1980s, according to Tribune articles at the time. One group, which took responsibility for vandalizing the tree in 1986, called the tree “ ’disgusting and offending’ to San Luis Obispo’s natural beauty,” according to a 1987 Tribune article.

“I just can’t understand it,” Alex Madonna told The Tribune in a 1988 article about the vandalism. “Especially at a time like Christmas. Someone must be out of their mind,” he said, adding that he was determined to keep the tree up.

A Tribune article from 1986 noted that the Madonnas considered the tree “their Christmas card to the community.”

“I don’t know that there’s ever been a year we’ve skipped,” Pearce said. “It’s family tradition, but it’s also a little gift we can give the community. We feel like there’s so many people that really enjoy it.”

How it works

Pearce said four maintenance engineers at the Madonna Inn make sure the tree is set up around the beginning of December. And even before the tree gets put up, there’s about two weeks where workers check all the bulbs and make sure the equipment is in good condition.

The family generally tries to keep the tree lit till New Year’s Day, and then takes the lights down after that, Pearce said.

It takes a few pickup trucks to haul everything up to the top, and about half a day to set up, Pearce said. Workers drive up every day around 3 or 4 p.m. to manually flip the switch that lights the tree and to top off the fuel tank for the generator that powers it.

If the maintenance workers are busy, Madonna family members or other employees will pitch in to make sure the tree is lit that night, Pearce said.

“It doesn’t automatically light up,” Pearce said. The tree has a timer on it, so it goes off about 6 a.m. every day.

Pearce said he estimates the tree costs about $10,000 per year to operate, with everything that goes into it.

“It’s a labor of love. We love doing it,” he said.

Madonna christmas tree1.JPG
Sunset at the Christmas tree on top of Cerro San Luis, also known as Madonna Mountain, on Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018. Gabby Ferreira gferreira@thetribunenews.com

Though the tree’s been a fixture for decades, it has been modernized over the years — and Pearce said they are looking into alternative sources of energy to power the tree.

“We have researched doing it with solar panels and batteries,” Pearce said. “The tree uses so much electricity, we would need a pretty substantial bank of batteries.”

Pearce noted that for now, it’s easier to operate the tree with a generator, but “the way battery technology is advancing,” the family might make the change in the next few years.

If you go

The city of San Luis Obispo operates the Cerro San Luis Natural Reserve, where many people start their trek up to the tree, according to Doug Carscaden, ranger services supervisor for San Luis Obispo Parks & Recreation.

The city allows night hiking on Cerro San Luis, though a permit is required and rangers are out checking for them, Carscaden said. You can get a permit up to one week before your planned hike. Consequences for not having a permit include a fine of $561, according to the city’s website. Go to slonighthikepermit.info to get a permit.

Permitted night use is limited to 65 individuals per day, and a permit is required from one hour after sunset until 8:30 p.m. from November through March, according to the city’s website.

Carscaden said the trail’s been very popular this year and there haven’t been any calls to help injured hikers since the daylight saving time change in early November.

“Everyone seems to be pretty prepared with lights and water, and ready for the outing they’re taking on,” Carscaden said. “Knock on wood, things stay that way.”

If you go out for a hike at dusk or dark, carry a flashlight and extra batteries, be familiar with the trail and have a map and make sure you have good footwear, proper clothing and water. And of course, don’t forget to have fun.

“It’s so fun for us as the Madonna family to see everybody go up there and making their pilgrimage to the top of the mountain,” Pearce said. “It’s almost a little bit spiritual; you get in that beautiful glow of the tree and it just gives you a warm feeling.”

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Gabby Ferreira is a breaking news and general assignment reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. A native of Houston, Texas, she was a reporter in Tucson, Arizona; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Palm Springs, California, before moving to San Luis Obispo County in 2016.
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