MAT-SU — Every day, thousands of Mat-Su Valley residents pass by the junction of the old and new Glenn highways during tedious morning and evening commutes.
As you travel under the Old Glenn headed for Anchorage, look to your right and you’ll see a seasonal treat three Mat-Su Valley men have conspired to give their neighbors for the past four years.
In the summer, the lone spruce growing in the triangular swath of earth between the on ramp and the highway doesn’t turn heads. But in the winter, it’s one of the bejeweled highlights for drivers facing the 50-plus-mile commute to Anchorage and back.
In this case, the backstory is almost as interesting as the main story, though. It was Facebook fans who helped put the Frontiersman in touch with these Secret Santas and they were the motivation behind a poll on frontiersman.com for the last two days that asked readers, “Do you want to know the identity of the people who decorate the Christmas tree at the junction of the old and new Glenn highways?”
The vast majority of people voted — 190 to 87 — for the Frontiersman to tell the story, but to keep their identities secret.
An idea is born
It all started on the commute to work.
“I’m just another commuter looking out the window,” Ben said. “We were working in Eagle River and Lucas was driving and I was looking out the window. I had time to appreciate the lone spruce that needed lights.”
Inside the truck that day the conversation turned quickly to the technical details of how to do it.
Ben credits Lucas with solving the technical aspects of lighting a Christmas tree miles from the nearest electrical receptacle. Lucas said he has experience with cabin life in remote Alaska and is no stranger to how to use a 12-volt battery and a power inverter together.
That’s how the tree was lit the first three years, Ben said.
“We didn’t really spend a whole lot of time thinking about it,” Lucas said. “We thought maybe people will notice. Maybe that won’t. But it makes me smile.”
Ben said it’s just a lucky break that he’s on the giving end of the nicest of Valley Christmas traditions.
“Anybody could have done it, we just thought of it first,” he said. “We’re fortunate to be the ones who get to do it for everyone else.”
But using a 12-volt power source also meant Ben needed to stop at the tree on his way to work and on his way home to replace the depleted battery. Still, he said he doesn’t mind. In fact, he’s glad for the way it breaks up his commute to and from his Hatcher Pass home, he said.
“It’s nice to get off the highway for a minute,” Ben said. “It brightens our day just like everybody else who sees it. It’s nice to see every morning and every night.”
The third Secret Santa
But two years ago, when Ben went out to the tree at the end of the Christmas season to retrieve his gear, a Christmas Grinch had stolen everything — the lights, the battery, the timer and the power inverter.
“Screw it then,” Lucas said. “We won’t light up the tree.”
But another Secret Santa who had driven by the tree for the past three years had other plans.
On his Dec. 12 commute last year, Jason noticed his favorite Christmas tree was still dark.
“I thought something must have happened to the guy,” Jason said.
So the next day he took his own battery, lights and power inverter to the tree and lit it, he said.
“When Ben was doing it, I was like, ‘I have to find this guy,’” Jason said. “Every time I drove by that tree it put a smile on my face.”
When the lights came on, Lucas got a phone call from his mother in Eagle River: “I see you lit the tree up.” But he had to confess that neither he nor Ben was the Secret Santa behind the lights that year.
All last winter, it was Jason who stopped at the tree on his way to work and on his way home to change out the battery.
“It was a lot more work with the 12-volt system,” Jason said.
This winter, though the tree is lit using two 6-volt batteries in series, he still checks it twice a day. But normally, he said the batteries last for three days.
The batteries are connected with alligator clips to a cigarette lighter. Plugged into the cigarette lighter is a power inverter and a timer is plugged into that, which together function to turn the lights on and off on schedule, he said.
The tree is lit from the day after Thanksgiving through the New Year from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Secret Santas meet
Over the summer, Jason did some research about ways to get longer battery life. For now, the solution is two 6-volt batteries in series.
“You get serious long life when you do that,” he said.
This winter, Jason had his gear all ready to light the tree Dec. 1, but when he got there, the lights were already on.
“So I left a note in the box and 20 minutes later, Ben called back,” Jason said.
“I got your note at the tree,” Ben said.
The two decided to meet at the tree the next day and figure out how the pair of Santas could work together to light the tree and keep their neighbors’ smiling.
“I met him there at 5:30 a.m.,” Jason said. “He looked at my stuff and said, ‘I think we’ll use your stuff from now on.’”
Ben has only compliments for the man who volunteered to keep the tradition going.
“Jason has definitely stepped it up a notch already,” he said. “When we started it, we just grabbed a few old batteries from the yard. We’re still working on it.”
All three men say the tree is the highlight of their commutes, and they welcome the chance to break up the drive with a stop at the tree in the morning at night.
“I’ll stop even if it is lit,” Ben said. “I worry I’m endangering other motorists, too, trying to get one or two more looks as I pass.”
For the smiles
At the tree last Thursday, a woman on the on-ramp pulls her car alongside Jason’s vehicle and rolls down her passenger’s side window. Jason rolls down his window, too.
“Are you responsible for the Christmas tree?” she asks.
“I’m one of ‘em,” Jason says.
“Thank you,” she said. “I love it very much.”
He smiles his appreciation and the driver pulls away, likely wearing a matching smile.
“Yesterday morning I got the same thing from a different lady,” Jason said.
On the highway, drivers honk their car horns in appreciation as they pass. Sometimes drivers roll down a window and shout “thank you” as they roll past, Jason said.
“Hear ‘em honkin’? I love that,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Up close, the tree is a lot larger than it looks flying past on the highway at 65 mph, the Secret Santas say. It’s about 30 feet tall and decorated with 13 strands of LED lights.
Ben said his daughter, Nisene, is part of the motivation to keep lighting the Christmas tree. Though she’s not quite 2, he said she likes the lights, too. Her proud dad said he even sets the timer to light the tree when he knows she and her mom will be on the highway after the usual show has ended.
“It’s just kind of a simple thing, but if you can make somebody smile, that’s great,” he said. “We’re just a couple people on the commute who wanted to see some lights.”
“If I can impact somebody’s day like that it makes me feel good,” he said.
“That’s the whole reason we do this,” Jason said.
Contact Heather A. Resz at email@example.com or 352-2268.