The blue spruce in front of the De La Cruz home was only about 20 feet tall when the family moved in 37 years ago — low enough for Abby De La Cruz’s grandpa to dangle white lights from its branches each year just before Christmas.
The tree grew to 45 feet tall, towering above the family home in southwest suburban Darien; it had been several years since anyone attempted to decorate it.
Still, last week, the patriarch of the family, Efren De La Cruz, 69, walked out to the tree and, misty-eyed, laid a hand on its trunk.
“I tried to imagine if there was no more tree there,” De La Cruz said this week. “The tree has a spirit. I was kind of talking with the tree: ‘I’m sorry that we have to let you go.’ ”
On Friday, the conical spruce was cut down, placed on a flatbed truck and hauled to Millennium Park next to the ice rink, where it will rise once again — if only for a short time — to be smothered in lights and admired by thousands. Mayor Brandon Johnson is expected to flip the switch Nov. 17.
De La Cruz family members say their tree is a gift to the city — a show of gratitude to the place they’ve called home since the early 1970s, when they left the Philippines for a better life.
“Me and my husband have both had our health challenges this past few years,” said Zenaida De La Cruz, a retired nurse like her husband. “This year, we feel better, and this made us more grateful for the small blessings that we have received and found out that giving to others also helps us with our own small blessings.”
One hundred families applied this year to have their tree become the city’s Christmas centerpiece, according to the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.
At 45 feet, the De La Cruz tree is one of the smallest donations since the city began soliciting them in 2009. The tallest was a 70-foot blue spruce, which was put up in 2010.
“I was really excited when [the city] called us to say that they loved our tree, that they wanted to bring our tree downtown,” Abby De La Cruz said. “Just a little bit sad when my mom was telling more stories about how she was reminded of my grandpa when she was decorating the tree.”
Abby’s grandpa, Julian Labanan, died in the 1990s, she said.
But there are no regrets.
“We weren’t able to light it up like we used to when it was smaller. So to imagine it being downtown lit up one more time — it feels special,” Abby De La Cruz said.
The family plans to be downtown when the switch gets flipped.
Now there is only sawdust and memories.
“I’m planning on using the stump as my flower pot stand,” Zenaida De La Cruz said.
The Millennium Park tree will be lit at 6 p.m. Nov. 17 at Michigan Avenue and Washington Street. Joe Donlon and Irika Sargent of WBBM-Channel 2 will host the free ceremony, viewable on screens at multiple locations throughout the park. Fireworks will follow.