Friends and family gathered for the Christmas lighting of Danielle’s tree last year. Andy Alfaro/Modesto Bee

A holiday tradition born of loss in rural California

There’s a little almond tree at the edge of an orchard outside Modesto that’s festooned with decorations on holidays throughout the year.

For passing motorists, the display is a bit of random cheer and also a mystery: Why this tree along this lonely stretch of road?

The story, first reported in the Modesto Bee, begins some time ago, when the orchard owner David Genzoli planned to yank the tree out because it was failing to thrive.

Genzoli’s little girl, Danielle, was a nature lover. Alerted to her dad’s plan, she convinced him to spare “the Charlie Brown tree,” as she called it. Together, they made a project out of caring for it.

Years later, in 2005, Danielle was killed in a car crash at the age of 16.

That Christmas, the family went out to discover that someone had decorated her almond tree. A tradition was born. Schoolchildren left laminated hearts for Valentine’s Day. It was bedecked for Easter and Halloween.

Danielle’s tree was lit up on Dec. 8, her 30th birthday.

Kimber Genzoli

Some people left letters on the tree. In one, a former schoolmate recounted how Danielle had cheered her up after her parents’ divorce by singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” “I just needed you to know what she did,” she wrote.

Last Saturday, a few dozen friends and family members gathered to add Christmas ornaments to the tree on what would have been Danielle’s 30th birthday. The group shared memories and joked that Danielle would be travelling the world right now.

Reached by phone, Danielle’s mother, Kimber Genzoli, said she would have loved it.

“It’s just nice that people are really drawn to the tree,” she said. Danielle’s absence is especially hard on her birthday, Genzoli added, “But I know she’s smiling down as happy as can be that her tree is still bright.”

The Genzoli family runs a charity in Danielle’s memory that helps young people in crisis. Head over here to learn more.

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