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December brings first lighting of the beloved Cerro San Luis Christmas tree

Posted at 8:41 AM, Dec 02, 2021

Wednesday night marked the first lighting of the 60-foot-tall, beloved Cerro San Luis, also known as Madonna Mountain, Christmas tree.

Every day a Madonna Inn employee makes the trek up the mountain to light the tree for the community to enjoy. We got a behind the scenes look with the man who has been putting up the tree for decades rain or shine.

"1993 was my first year coming up here," said Madonna Inn Senior Engineer, Ted Sabatini.

Ted Sabatini, an engineer with the Madonna Inn makes the journey up Cerro San Luis every night in December to ensure all twelve strands of lights making up the Christmas tree are illuminated.

Sabatini says the Madonna Inn starts receiving calls as early as November, inquiring about when the tree will go up for the season.

"We've been putting the tree up on December 1st for the past 10 years," said, Sabatini.

Each year on the first of December, Madonna Inn maintenance staff come up the mountain and power a generator in order to power the 60 foot Christmas tree on top of Madonna Mountain.

The tree typically stays up until the first week of January.

"It starts off the season. It's kind of like okay, holiday season is now started officially," said Sabatini.

The tree typically stays up until the first week of January.

"Christmas Eve is the night to be here," said Sabatini.

He says on Christmas Eve you can often see the glow of headlights as people make their way up the mountain and wait for him to light the tree.

"They hike up either down on Marsh Street and there's paths that come up here and make sure you wear your headlamps because it's dark," said Sabatini.

The city issues a limited number of night hiking permits each year, allowing community members to see the spectacle up close at night.

"If you're a local as soon as that tree goes up it's just, you feel good, you know it's the holiday season, everybody's getting in the spirit. A lot of the locals love to do this hike and see the tree at night," said Paso Robles Resident, Alison McEnitire.

Tammy Smith, a UC Santa Barbara alum who graduated more than two decades ago, says she first fell in love with hiking on the Central Coast and is back visiting her sister who wanted to show her this unique Christmas tradition.

"I came with my sister. I visited her, she lives in Paso. I love to hike so she brought me up here because this is one of her favorite hikes and she told me about the tree up top," said visitor Tammy Smith.

The Madonna Inn staff enjoy bringing this tradition to life every year for the community.

"It's always fun when I get to ride up and I get to experience the excitement and get to see everybody's, you know, everybody loves being up here and getting to be part of it," said Madonna Inn Marketing Director, Amanda Rich.

Though it may look like your average Christmas tree from a distance, Rich says its much larger than you might expect.

"The tree is actually 60 feet tall and it's adorned with 12 strands, so each strand holds a bunch of different lights," said Madonna Inn Marketing Director, Amanda Rich.

Including red lights at the top that guide airplanes. The tree takes over 8,000 watts of electricity and uses almost 10 gallons of diesel every night. Every day the tree is turned on at about 3 pm by a member of the maintenance staff and turns off automatically every morning at 6am.

On Christmas Eve Sabatini usually selects the smallest person there to light the tree.

"...And so I have them come over and flip the switch on the generator and it's pretty spectacular," said Sabatini.

Though there was initially a mixed response by the community to this iconic Christmas tree, it has become a beloved and unique tradition here in San Luis Obispo.

The tradition began in the mid-1970’s when Madonna Inn co-creators Alex and Phyllis Madonna decided to take their holiday decor to the next level by constructing a lit Christmas tree at the top of the mountain.