Modern holiday season retail traditions such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday or that pre-yuletide spendfest, Amazon Prime Day, involve more and more time choosing gifts online instead of in-store. Traditions change, but there’s no stopping the shopping; the National Retail Federation expects over $940 billion in sales this holiday season.

Retailers have been racking their brains for decades coming up with clever ways to lure shoppers into stores. Rich’s, Atlanta’s hometown department store founded in 1867, was already well versed in such marketing by the time it debuted its best-known promotional ploy in 1948.

The Great Tree, touted by the store as its gift not only to Atlanta but to the whole state, began life as a way to boost shopping traffic and help Rich’s modernize its image, according to news reports at the time.

WSB-TV archival footage of the lighting Rich's Great Tree in the 1960s and 1970s
Another undated downtown tree lighting on Forsyth Street photo. The floors under the tree were called the Crystal Bridge.

Credit: AJC FILE

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Credit: AJC FILE

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“The notion of a Christmas tree atop Rich’s bridge was the brainchild of Frank Neely, former manager of the downtown store, and Frank Pollatto, former publicity director,” the Constitution’s Joseph Litsch wrote in a Nov. 16, 1981, piece detailing Rich’s annual quest to find the perfect tree.

“In 1947, the movie-going world was beaming with the newly released ‘Miracle on 34th Street,’ which was to become a Christmas classic and make Kriss Kringle a national figure. No one knows whether this film was the inspiration or not,” Litsch continued, “but the timing was perfect.”

Neely, who died at 95, brought Rich’s into the 20th century, “modernizing virtually every aspect of the store’s operations — from marketing and merchandizing to the implementation of the store’s (famous) philosophy that the customer is always right,” the Constitution’s David Morrison wrote in Neely’s May 25, 1979, obituary.

The Great Tree was part of Neely’s quest to “convert Rich’s from what he said was ‘still a country store’ to a department store that could compete successfully with Macy’s.” Getting customers to patronize the downtown location at 45 Broad Street, now part of the Sam Nunn Federal Center, was key to this strategy.

In the Nov. 28, 1948, Journal, a full-page Rich’s ad encouraged shoppers to visit the Great Tree, which the store alternately dubbed its ‘Christmas Tree in the Sky.’

On the Crystal Bridge above Forsyth Street, Rich's has raised a Christmas tree. Its bright holiday lights, shining over Atlanta, signal a welcome to the Christmas season and to all Georgians.

Come down today, bring the children and the family.

See the tree, enjoy the Christmas music, the festive windows and the panorama of Santa's workshop in action!

- Journal Rich's ad, Nov. 1948

“Attendance figures for the first tree lighting are unavailable,” Litsch wrote in his 1981 article. “Frankly, no one expected this gathering to become the holiday event it has become.”

From 1948 to 1990, the Rich’s Great Tree lighting was a Thanksgiving night tradition at the flagship store downtown. Generations of metro area families, stuffed from the day’s turkey dinners, headed downtown to the Crystal Bridge spanning Forsyth Street for the evening’s festivities.

Local church and school choirs sang Christmas and holiday standards as crowds gathered on either side of Forsyth, awaiting the pinnacle of the ceremony, when all four decks of the bridge were lighted, lowest to highest, as the Tree lit up during “O Holy Night” at the singing of the lyric “Oh, night divine.”

Melody Demerchant (C) cheers during the Macy's 72nd Great Tree Lighting Ceremony Sunday, November 24, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

In 1991, after the downtown Rich’s store closed, the lighting moved to Underground Atlanta. Since 2000, the ceremony has taken place at Lenox Square. The Tree is now artificial, the lighting festivities are jazzed up with fireworks, the local choirs mostly replaced by big-name performers and it’s Macy’s, the store that inspired Frank Neely to invent the Tree in the first place, that now continues the tradition.

Despite the many changes, revelers come from all over Thanksgiving night to officially kick off the Atlanta holiday season. The Tree still brings the crowds.

“When you look at all those kids out there Thanksgiving night and see their faces when that tree lights up,” Travis Guest, Rich’s manager of signs and posters, told the Constitution in 1981, “it’s all worthwhile.”


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