In 2005, Dito Sevilla approached the then-owner of Floriana Italian Restaurant about considering a Christmas tree for what he felt was an empty patio.
The Dupont Circle restaurant’s namesake was enthusiastic about the concept, prompting Sevilla, now the restaurant’s bar manager, to buy a tree. It was filled with decorations from Home Depot and served its purpose, but Sevilla had bigger ambitions.
So, in 2012, he felt the tree could become an annual tradition, something that celebrates luminaries or well-known figures in the community.
The concept culminated in the 2020 tree, showcasing President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. And it caught the attention of Harris, who alongside her husband visited the tree that sits in front of the restaurant on 17th Street Northwest this week.
“It was that following Saturday, when all the major media outlets called [the election],” Floriana owner Jamie Branda said of when the theme for the 2020 Christmas tree was decided. “We knew, I think, it couldn’t have been anyone else at that point really.”
“It can’t look like a COVID-year tree,” Sevilla said. “It’s not going to be a brown moment.”
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The tree always debuts the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Sevilla said, and it takes about 10 days to complete. For the first time, 159 donors funded the project, which the D.C. Department of Transportation allowed to sit on the street corner this year rather than on the restaurant’s patio.
The “Kamala Tree,” as it’s labeled, features American flags, traditional ornaments, images of Biden wearing sunglasses and small mailboxes with “I voted” stickers.
It also references old trees, as evidenced by a hanging photo of Sevilla with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in front of the “Pelosi Tree.”
Floriana’s outdoor dining atmosphere also celebrates Harris, with images of her lining the inside of its dining tents. The outside of the tents feature photos that tell the story of Harris progressing from a young girl to becoming the vice presidential nominee.
Sevilla started communicating with Harris’s team in December to see if she’d be interested in arranging a visit. She and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, took a selfie in front of the tree Monday night.
Branda said that during the visit, Harris inquired about the 42-year restaurant, asking how it fared during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“She basically wanted to make sure that the federal aid that was intended for small businesses, and help us survive shutdown and limited operation and all that was functioning, was keeping people working,” Branda said.
While Harris drew attention to the tree, Sevilla said it has evolved into a landmark, drawing intrigue from the D.C. community. The 2019 tree celebrated the Kennedy Center honorees, with rainbow ornaments and Big Bird on top.
Other themes include Elizabeth Taylor, Betty Boop and, in 2017, ‘Coco,’ which Sevilla said wasn’t a big hit. The neighborhood has high standards because many people take Christmas card photos in front of the tree.
“From the very day we started setting it up, [the Coco tree] got negative neighborhood attention from a few cuckoo people,” Sevilla said.
More than anything, Branda said the attention the tree receives annually is just one example of how valuable the restaurant is to the community.
Before federal aid was made available, many customers bought gift cards, and a GoFundMe campaign raised $6,000 that went directly to the staff.
And though the tree will come down in the coming weeks, it still has locals talking.
On Wednesday afternoon, Sevilla asked an onlooker who works nearby her opinion of the Harris iteration.
“I saw it on TV,” the woman told him. “You designed it? Well, you did a wonderful job. Yesterday, I came and looked. I just had to come back again today. It’s a wonderful thing you did for the community.”