During the holiday season, a drive along S. 336th Street near Weyerhaeuser Way South takes you past Federal Way’s community tree decked in tinsel and ornaments.
The years roll on and the decorations keep appearing. Community members began to wonder: Who are the decorators of Federal Way’s community tree?
Lori and Jeff Allen and their daughter, Savannah, have lived in Federal Way since 2003, and are the Mirror’s Hometown Heroes for December.
Each year, the Allens would pass by the tree and see it decorated. About two weeks until Christmas in 2014, Lori Allen was driving by and noticed the tree sat bare of any Christmas cheer.
It’s unclear who upheld the tree-dressing tradition prior to 2014. Perhaps the previous decorator moved away, passed away, or simply couldn’t do it anymore. Realizing the tradition must go on, Lori said the Allen family decided, “if not you, then who?” and adopted the seasonal responsibility.
During the nighttime a few days later, the Allens snuck out to decorate the tree. Their nighttime adventure was a strategic move so they wouldn’t get caught or possibly get in trouble. “We kind of felt like we were taking a bit of a risk,” Lori said.
The former tree may have appeared small from the road, but up close, it stood several feet tall. The Allens could only reach the bottom half of the tree with decorations, and ladders couldn’t safely do the job. Over the years, Jeff created a contraption allowing them to place garland and ornaments higher up.
In January each year, the family always returns to take down and save the decorations to be used the next year. It’s both financially responsible and good for the environment.
“We noticed that people were starting to put their own decorations on, and a couple of them were memorials,” Lori said. “Every year when we decorate, we reuse those ornaments so that when those folks come and look at the tree, they’ll see their ornaments are back on the tree.”
One year when the Allens went to undress the tree, a daily commuter had left a thank you note to say how seeing the decorated tree each night lifted their spirits. The note also included a coffee gift card. On social media, an outpouring of appreciation and wonder for the hands behind the holiday magic returns each December.
“That first year, it was so impactful,” Lori said. “We got it, we got what that little tree meant to the community and that’s why we continue to do it.”
While the first year felt as if they were getting away with something, now they understand how much the community relies on the annual tradition.
Another year while the family was preparing the tree for the season, a security guard of the property came by in a truck, and the Allens assumed they were busted. But the guard just watched as the family hung ornaments from the branches. Then he waved and drove off.
While some years the gifts you received fall into lost memory, the tradition and memory of the tree decorating will never be forgotten for the Allen family, Lori said.
“I love it. It’s a sense of community that I didn’t realize we had,” Lori said. “When I told people at work about our little Christmas tree, they’re actually a bit jealous that they don’t have something like that in their community. That’s when I realized how special what we have really is.”
Over the years, their decorating trio has grown to include friends and relatives who want to join in on the fun.
In July, the former tree was destroyed, but neither police nor property officials know how. Some residents say a car crashed into the tree, while others say it was damaged by fireworks. The former tree was dying after a dry spell years ago and the branches were slowly turning brown.
Community members rallied together to garner support for a new tree. In August, a new tree was replanted and ready to be loved by Federal Way.
The previous beloved community tree was another loss of 2020, Lori said.
“It was like, of course it got run over this year, that’s what 2020 is all about,” she said. “Then when it got replaced, it was something good and something to look forward to this year.”
The tree sparkles at night in the glow of passing headlights and shimmers in the daytime sun (or overcast). Though small, the new tree is mighty and gives the community a sense of renewal, Lori said.
The new tree is still quite fragile and isn’t strong enough to carry the weight of most of the past years’ decorations. If you plan to add your own ornaments, Lori encourages residents to be careful with the tree’s delicate branches.
Decorating usually begins the day after Thanksgiving in order for the trimmings to be up as long as possible before the January undressing.
The family looks forward to putting up other people’s ornaments the most, and always place them on the front of the tree so visiting families can easily find their addition.
“We leave everybody’s love on the tree,” she said of the ornaments that show up from others in the city. “It gives me a really good feeling to know we’re doing something that started off just for us because I loved the tree, only to find out that it wasn’t just me, it wasn’t just us.”