Shereen Jacobson-McCrary has been setting up artificial Christmas trees for nearly four decades. This year, the plantscaper will oversee the construction of hundreds of them, both living and artificial, including the 42-foot-tall tree at the State Capitol in Austin. But it’s the one in the Galleria that’s always been her favorite.

“It’s the only tree I know of that’s assembled manually,” she says of the massive specimen, 56 feet tall and 28 feet across at its widest point. “Every branch is put in place by hand.” That’s mainly because the ice on the Galleria rink won’t support a crane—the normal means of constructing a tree of this size—but after 38 years, it’s also become something of a tradition.

Six weeks before the Christmas tree is revealed every year, Shereen’s “elves” begin hauling out the massive branches from cavernous storage rooms in the bowels of the Galleria. They work 12-hour days taking the lights off the branches, fluffing them, re-stringing them, and finally hauling them out to the ice rink.

Holiday crowds never see the tree go up. Why? Because the night before it’s illuminated, 50 people move the branches to the ice rink and 75 others then carefully construct the tree piece by piece. While the manufacturer recommends a 48-hour assembly time, the Galleria elves do it in 14.

Before that, though, a protective covering is laid over the ice and several panes in the 750-foot skylight in the Galleria ceiling are popped out—the only way to install the 14-foot top piece of the Christmas tree. When the topper is lowered into place by careful elves standing atop a metal catwalk, the tree barely brushes the top of the skylight.

The tree is lit that evening in a 30-minute lighting ceremony, although Shereen’s preferred time to admire her handiwork is 3 a.m. That’s when she lets herself in to take care of the Galleria’s real plants. A majestic sight becomes even more so at that hour, twinkling alone in an empty mall. 

“I love this tree,” she says, with all the fondness of a parent admiring her only child. “There’s no other tree like this.”

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