This 'underwhelming' roadside Christmas tree has delighted commuters for decades

If you've driven on Highway 102 in Bedford, N.S., around the holidays over the last few decades, chances are you've spotted an endearingly unremarkable fir tree dotted with colourful lights.

The unassuming Christmas tree is proudly perched atop a rocky cliff that overlooks the busy commuter route, travelled by tens of thousands of vehicles daily.

Even amidst the onslaught of headlights whizzing by in the darkness, it's hard to miss.

For 20 years, Ed McHugh has hiked a few minutes through the woods behind his house with a string of Christmas lights, laying 180 metres of extension cord along the way. 

But what started in 2000 as a "goofy fun thing to do" has grown to become a community tradition that signifies, for some, the official start of the holiday season, he said.

Aly Thomson/CBC

"The tree is quite underwhelming, actually," said McHugh with a laugh, as cars rushed by 15 metres below.

"Some people talk about him being a little beacon as they drive home in the evenings from work.... He stands out in the dark because there's no houses along here so as you drive along the highway you go, 'How the heck did that get there?'"

McHugh first decided to decorate the tree a year after moving into his home.

He was standing on the cliff when he noticed the "scrawny little thing." It reminded him of the trees that grow from rocks in his home province of Newfoundland.

"I just said, 'You need some lovin'," said McHugh. "So I ran out to the store, got four extension cords, ran them out with my dad's old battered up Newfoundland tree lights and lit him up. He became an instant sensation."

Early on, the tree was dubbed "Charlie," after Charlie Brown's famously small and skimpy tree.

Aly Thomson/CBC

For McHugh, the tree evokes the spirit of the 1965 classic Christmas special, particularly when Linus affectionately wraps his blue blanket around the the base of the tree and declares: "Maybe it just needs a little love."

"He's kind of ugly in his own little way but he's beautiful in his own little way, too," said McHugh, adding that Charlie stood about two metres high 20 years ago but has since grown about "twice his size."

Each year on Grey Cup Sunday, roughly 100 people young and old gather for an annual tree-lighting ceremony, where Christmas carols like O Christmas Tree are sung before everyone is invited back to the McHugh residence for party to kick off the holiday season.

The youngest child in attendance, usually around two years old, always has the honour of plugging in the lights for the first time of the season.

The lights then remain on 24/7 until Jan. 6 —  known as Old Christmas Day.

This year, Charlie had lost a few branches and was looking especially sparse, and so McHugh's wife, Shelly, suggested attaching another smaller tree to it to make it appear more full. 

AP Photo/ABC, 1965 United Feature Syndicate Inc.

McHugh protested, but in the end conceded defeat, because: 'You've got to keep mama bear happy."

There are no plans to stop the Christmas ritual.

A few years ago, McHugh and his wife had a decision to make — should they renovate their current home or move? Charlie was a factor in their decision to stay put.

"I just love doing this and I love the reaction from people," said McHugh, who teaches business at the Nova Scotia Community College and Dalhousie, Mount St. Vincent and Saint Mary's universities.

"People complain about the commercialism of Christmas, but that's only if you go that way. For me, this is exactly what Christmas should be. It can be about simple little things that make people smile."

Aly Thomson/CBC

McHugh said when he first lit Charlie 20 years ago, he never expected it would become the tradition it is today. 

There have been letters to the editor acknowledging the tree in newspapers, he's received cards of thanks from strangers and local children's eyes light up when he reveals he's "the tree guy." Charlie is even featured live on local radio station C100 FM every year.

"There's just a tremendous amount of appreciation for this goofy little, skinny little guy over here," said McHugh, turning to face the tree that has become his legacy-of-sorts.

"It will probably come up at my funeral."