A Secret Pet Memorial Christmas Tree Is Hidden in Central Park · The Wildest

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A Secret Christmas Tree in Central Park Helps People Memorialize Their Pets

It’s like something out of a fairytale.

by Sio Hornbuckle
December 20, 2023
Pet memorial Christmas tree.

If you’re walking in Central Park around the holidays — specifically, between Thanksgiving and Three Kings Day in January — there’s a chance you’ll stumble across something truly magical. Deep in The Ramble (the most well-known of the three woodland areas of the park) is the Pet Memorial Christmas Tree. On this tree, parents of departed pets leave photos, toys, and other ornaments tied to the tree in memory of their beloved animals.

The tradition has been around for decades, with the media only catching on in more recent years. The website Untapped New York first discovered the tree in 2013, and The New York Times just reported on it earlier this week.

Who created the mysterious Pet Memorial Christmas Tree? 

For years, the “Keeper of the Tree” was a complete mystery, lending to its magical air. It was as if it grew of its own accord each year around the holidays to celebrate the bond between humans and animals. We now know how the tradition was started — and the real story is no less magical.

ornaments hanging on the Pet Memorial Christmas Tree; a cat with the caption "Oreo 'Chunky' Our favorite book buddy!"
Photo: Isabel Klee

Per an article posted by photographer and writer Larry Closs and reported on by the Times, the existence of the tree is traced back all the way to 1986, when casting director Jason Reddock stumbled upon a few dog toys hanging in a tree. The next day, he returned with his friend, an actress named Nicki Gallas, and the two decided to make their own contributions: a photo of Gallas’s deceased and living dogs, and red velvet bows with the names of Reddock’s pets written on them. Other passersby followed, and the tradition was born. For years, Gallas and Reddock returned to the tree to collect the ornaments when the holiday season ended, brought them home, then added them back when November came along.

When Gallas moved away from the city and Reddock became unable to make the walk to the Ramble, they passed the baton on to their friend, Marianne Larsen. “I started taking the ornaments home a few years ago and getting them laminated at a print shop because I thought it was so sad when they literally just fell apart sometimes,” Larsen told Closs. “There were so many that I eventually just bought my own laminating machine.” 

Larsen put up the ornaments alone until 2022, but after several people saw her at work and offered to help, the decorating became a group effort. They now adorn the tree as a team, and the amount of ornaments keeps growing each year.

According to the Times, 200 photos were added in 2020, another 200 in 2021, and another 200 in 2022 — Larsen estimates that there could be over 750 pets now adorning the Pet Memorial Christmas Tree. A staff member on The Wildest who passes the tree regularly while walking her dog says, “I noticed that it was starting to fill up a few weeks back, and now it’s packed.”

an ornament on the Pet Memorial Christmas Tree: the words "We miss you (and your stinky fish breath) every day. Love, your lucky dads + annoying little bro"
Photo: Isabel Klee

Where is the Pet Memorial Christmas Tree?

The tree’s hidden location is part of what makes it so special. You won’t find it on Google Maps, and there aren’t any marked directions to it in the park — in fact, Central Park has no official involvement. Media coverage and dozens of Reddit and Instagram comments have helped narrow the location down for those willing to go on a hike through the Ramble — the dense, winding pathway of trees between 73rd and 78th streets — but the tree is intended to be found by chance.

Larsen discourages people from giving out directions online. “I think low-key is better since the Park is being kind even allowing us to do this,” she told Closs. “No one else gets to display or decorate anything in what is supposed to be a strictly natural setting. I wouldn’t want to lose the privilege with tour groups coming through.” 

the Pet Memorial Christmas Tree
Photo: Isabel Klee

What is the tree’s impact?

What’s no mystery is the positive impact the tree has had on the lives of people who have lost their pets. The ornaments may help people find closure and a chance to celebrate their loved ones in the company of other grieving animal lovers. Larsen told the Times that people who have left pet memorial ornaments before moving out of the city sometimes return just to visit them. 

A look around at the messages left on the tree shows how important these pets were to their humans. “You were 15 years of unconditional love. You are in our hearts forever. Love you, little angel,” one reads. “Love you, Mr. Snoop! See you in heaven,” says another. “How could so much love fit in one so small?” asks another note. One simply says, “We miss you every day.” 

It makes sense that so many people are drawn to this tree. “I hope the tree serves the same purpose that I assume people get from visiting their family graveyards, where you can go and you can talk to the person or the dog and you’re happy to have that connection again,” Larsen told Closs. “And if you’re from New York, you will remember all those great times you had walking and playing with your dog in the park, and recognizing all their friends who are hanging on the tree. I think it’s just a lovely sentimental moment for people.”

Sio Hornbuckle

Sio Hornbuckle is a writer living in New York City with their cat, Toni Collette.

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