The world’s only 35-foot sand tree survived and now shines brighter than ever over the Florida waterfront

By Linda Marx
December 09, 2019 02:35 PM
Credit: Courtesy of the City of West Palm Beach

Could it be a Christmas miracle?

The 35-foot, 700-ton holiday sand tree on West Palm Beach, Florida’s waterfront was vandalized last week. Surveillance video released by the local police showed a person climbing on the side of the tree and sliding down. Law enforcement issued a statement saying the incident caused damage “exceeding more than $1,000.”

But the city came together to make sure one person’s grinchy prank didn’t spoil their holiday centerpiece.

“The city came to Sandi’s rescue quickly and efficiently,” West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James tells PEOPLE. “We patched her up and she is as good as new, ready to rock and illuminate the entire city with holiday spirit.”

The tree will stand tall “come rain, shine or shenanigans,” adds Raphael Clemente, Executive Director of the city’s Downtown Development Authority. “Mischievous kids are not going to put a stop to the fun or impact the ‘wow’ factor.”

The vandal has not been caught.

Credit: West Palm Beach Police Department
Credit: West Palm Beach Police Department

The one-of-a-kind tree, which is made entirely of sand, had its eighth annual lighting last week in downtown West Palm Beach. People of all ages and backgrounds gathered together to delight in seeing the Florida-appropriate creation.

According to city officials, Sandi’s unusual construction begins in early November when sand is brought to the West Palm Beach waterfront by the truckload and then sculpted into a giant masterpiece just before Thanksgiving.

The lighting team then synchronizes and choreographs nightly light shows, which continue through December 31.

Previously, the city of West Palm Beach contracted with a company to cut down a tree in the Carolinas each year, which would be decorated in traditional style.

But in 2011, the city brought in Team Sandtastic, a group of sand sculptors from the Sarasota area, to create various sculptures throughout downtown. The sand sculptures added unusual beauty and generated such a buzz that officials wanted more.

They asked if the team could create a sand-sculpted, 35-foot-tall “fir tree” – like the real one they had on display – and the sculptors fully embraced the challenge. In 2012, Sandi was born as the star of West Palm Beach’s holiday show.

“Creating Sandi is an absolute…(sand) blast,” Mark Mason of Team Sandtastic, who has carved Sandi each year, tells PEOPLE. “We know the city’s holiday season is defined by this magnificent creation that we take such pride and joy in sculpting each year.”

Every season, Sandi’s backstory expands, always maintaining what the city calls her “sassy slant.” This year the tree’s theme, “Surf’s Up” has a focus on two important issues: sustainability and ocean conservation.

“This is Sandi’s most beautiful year,” Clemente says. “Her sassy personality expressed through the Surf’s Up theme, always shines through.”

In addition to Sandi, West Palm Beach offers additional free attractions surrounding her, all part of the collective “Sandi Land” experience.

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“Downtown West Palm Beach is known for being ‘always original’ and it was time we came up with a holiday theme that was unique and also reflected our tropical location and culture,” Mary Pinak, the city’s community events manager and the unofficial “mother” of Sandi, tells PEOPLE.

“We have built an entire holiday in paradise campaign around her ‘real trees have curves’ personality—and her domain of Sandi Land, which encompasses all of our fun, free, family-friendly holiday activities.”

Sandi also has her own social media accounts, @sanditreewpb, where she interacts with her fans. She has received various awards and accolades, which include “Best New Event” and “Best Event within an Existing Festival” by the International Festivals and Events Association; and “Most Innovative Project” by the Florida Festivals and Events Association.

It is estimated that more than 100,000 people make the trek to the West Palm Beach waterfront to view Sandi as part of their annual “must-see” holiday list of things to do.

“It’s incredible how many people see Sandi especially when you consider the city of West Palm Beach has a population of about 110,000,” says Bill Newgent, a city resident, and Vice President of Great Cities For All, a national company offering leadership training and government relations services for cities.

“We owe it to a constant creative energy that gave birth to an amazing artisanal Christmas sculpture.”