Greg Barila

Journalist. Editor. Social Media specialist.

There’s a Christmas tree on top of the new RAH - know why?

Christmas tree on top of the new RAH for the traditional "topping off" ceremony. Photo: News Corp. Australia.

Accidents involving cranes, union troubles and fears the project could run over schedule have dominated news headlines in recent months.
But the new RAH reached an important milestone last week. It happened so quietly without fanfare you probably missed it.
I learned about it in a curious tweet.
“Can anyone explain why there is a Christmas tree on top of the new Royal Adelaide Hospital building?” Alison Kershaw tweeted, along with a picture of – well, exactly like she said – a Christmas tree sitting on top of the hospital between a pair of cranes.
You can almost set your watch by stories trumpeting the arrival of Christmas ephemera in our supermarkets in September – but on top of our buildings? That’s a new one – or maybe not. About half an hour after her first message, Alison followed up with a second tweet, with a link to Wikipedia.
“Thank you internet, there is a tree on the Royal Adelaide Hospital building site because of ‘topping out’”.
Apparently this is a real thing; ‘topping out’, also known in the building trade as “topping off”.
TELL US: Do you know of any other peculiar industry riturals? Share them below.
The ritual was well described by John V Robinson, a US writer specialising in bridges and “heavy construction” – how one man can handle so much excitement I have no idea.
“Topping out” is the term used by ironworkers to indicate that the final piece of steel is being hoisted into place on a building, bridge, or other large structure,” Robinson wrote.
“The project is not completed, but it has reached its maximum height.”
“To commemorate this first milestone the final piece of iron is usually hoisted into place with a small evergreen tree (called a Christmas tree in the trade) and an American flag attached.”
If the project was big and important enough, the ceremony was sometimes rounded out with a “topping out party” in which the construction crews are treated to food and drink”.
Robinson said one reason workers observed the custom was simply because they were first to the top.
“I guess the impulse to commemorate the achievement is similar to that of mountain climbers – or astronauts landing on the moon for that matter”.
A lengthy article in the New York Times, in 1984, tried to reach back further to find the origins the peculiar custom.
While some details remain sketchy, many of those quoted in the article agreed the tree ritual dated back to Scandinavia 1300 years ago, “perhaps symbolising bringing life to the building”.
“We do have solid evidence that about 700 A.D, the Scandinavians were the first to be using trees to symbolise the topping-out,” William M Lawbaugh, the editor of Ironworker Magazine was quoted as saying.
“The mythology in Scandinavia suggests that man might have originated from a tree and the soul of man returns to the tree after death”.
Fascinating. And rather poignant concept for the top of a hospital. A spokeswoman for the new RAH joint venture said an “official topping-out ceremony” would be held in the next few weeks.