Every fall for the past 15 years, before the President and the First Family turn on the National Christmas tree in President’s Park outside the White House, Jim Riccio has strung thousands of Christmas lights on a nearly identical spruce outside GE’s headquarters in Fairfield, Connecticut. “The design is the same as the one in DC,” Riccio says. “It’s as close as you can get to an exact duplicate.”
For most of the year, Riccio works as senior facilities technician in Fairfield. “I do anything that needs doing, from changing light bulbs to fixing air conditioning and plumbing,” he says. But come Columbus Day, Riccio embarks on a mission of national significance: testing the lighting design for America’s premier holiday tree.
GE Lighting has designed the lights display and provided bulbs and lamps for the national tree for the last 50 years. About 20 years ago GE lighting designers started testing their designs in Fairfield. “In Washington they have a very strict deadline and limitations because they are right in front of the White House,” Riccio says. “We build it here a week or two earlier so that they can see what it looks like. If things don’t look right, they still have time to fix it.”
The computer-controlled design changes every year. Riccio starts working from a “power point presentation the designers used in Washington to get the design approved,” he says. The red, white and green lights, cables, and golden star ornaments weighing in at 1,000 pounds arrive on three wooden packing skids in mid-October.
It takes and Riccio and a few assistants from the landscaping crew five or six weeks to adorn the 45-foot spruce, depending on weather. “Sometimes you can’t get out there when it’s too windy and stuff,” he says. They work methodically from a 65-foot high bucket truck and a step ladder for the lower branches. Riccio keeps the design team at GE Lighting in Cleveland, Ohio, informed about his progress. “We email and talk back and forth about how it is supposed to be designed, and what the decoration set up is,” he says.
Riccio aims to be done by Thanksgiving, two weeks before the President lights the National Christmas Tree on the first Thursday in December. Since 2007, GE has been using LEDs instead of standard incandescent Christmas lights. “The LEDs cut our power consumption by 80 percent,” he says.
The Fairfield tree stands outside the main gatehouse on Easton Turnpike where everybody in the neighborhood or just passing by can see it. Riccio starts taking down the lights after the New Year, a job that takes about two weeks. He ships them back to Cleveland.
Does he use any of his decorating tricks on his own tree? “No,” Riccio says. “I let my wife and son decorate the tree at home.”
Every year for the last 15 years, GE’s Jim Riccio has been building a replica of the National Christmas Tree at GE’s headquarters in Fairfield, Connecticut. Every year for the last 15 years, GE’s Jim Riccio has been building a replica of the National Christmas Tree at GE’s headquarters in Fairfield, Connecticut.