WATCH: Roanoke Christmas tree lit, a time capsule from the 1980s

Published: Dec. 3, 2021 at 1:35 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 3, 2021 at 1:43 PM EST
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - In 2020, the lights were turned on with little fanfare in Downtown Roanoke due to the pandemic. This year, the holidays are bigger and better than ever in Downtown Roanoke. and that includes the story behind this year’s official City of Roanoke Christmas Tree.

Each year the City of Roanoke goes in search for the best-looking Norway Spruce it can find to become the mascot of the merry season. It has to be the perfect size according to the search team. It must be a Norway Spruce, needs to have the perfect Christmas tree shape, and must be between 30-36 feet tall. Sometimes it’s a stretch to find someone that wants to donate, but this year, the tree came to them.

Rick and Cindy Gardner bought their Vinton home from the Musselwhite family in late 2020 and just missed the deadline to donate the giant spruce in their front yard that had grown a little too close to their home. This year, it was a perfect match. The city’s Christmas tree elves came out, carefully cut down the tree, and shipped it into to Downtown to be decorated.

But that’s not where the story begins.

Tore Sampson from the 1988-89 William Byrd High School yearbook.
Tore Sampson from the 1988-89 William Byrd High School yearbook.(WDBJ7)

Tree rings are like a time machine, which in this case, go all the way back to the 1980s, when a foreign exchange student from Norway named Tore Sampson lived with the Musselwhite family from 1988-89, attending William Byrd High School.

“It was a wonderful year. Once of the best times of my life,” Sampson recalled during a Zoom interview from his home in Norway.

Sampson was staying with the Musselwhite family during the holiday season, and in his honor, the family planted Norway Spruce tree in their front yard. You guessed it. The same tree that is now front and center in Wells Fargo Plaza ready to be the mascot of the merry season.

“It’s very special to me. I like it very much to know this tree is going to be in Downtown Roanoke.”

32 years later. Sampson is still living in Norway. The self-employed, father of 3, and husband to a nurse that got back into the field when the pandemic started, still visits the Roanoke Valley on occasion.

“I can’t believe it has been 32 years. Doesn’t feel like that. I’ve driven by the tree many times when I’ve visited Roanoke, so it’s very nice to know they’ve put up that tree for me there.”

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