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Disguised as ‘Mr. Christmas Tree,’ Bel Air’s Tommy Liberto spreads holiday cheer in New York City

Bel Air resident Tommy Liberto has spent the past six Decembers traveling to New York City to spread holiday cheer — delivered by surprising passersby while disguised as a Christmas tree — work that is especially important this year as the nation remains in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This year in particular, we really need it,” Liberto said Monday. “As a nation, we need some levity.”

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Liberto, 47, visited New York Friday and Saturday, situating himself in various locations around the Big Apple such as Times Square, outside Radio City Music Hall, Central Park and the Staten Island Ferry.

“It’s a fabulous place with lots of lights — there’s Christmas decorations everywhere in New York, I can hide anywhere,” he said.

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Liberto, also known as “Mr. Christmas Tree,” wears a costume made of the branches of some trees he purchased at Home Depot, then stripped down and rebuilt into an outfit. He wears “hunting-type clothing” underneath, including camouflage pants, boots, a shirt and field jacket, plus he carries a bomber jacket in case he needs an extra layer to protect himself from the cold.

The tree also features two sets of battery-powered lights, including white lights fueled by D batteries and multi-colored LED lights — which are remote controlled — fueled by a drill battery and connected to a power inverter within the costume.

“The tree is also engineered to be all-weather, so I don’t have any problems with getting any rain or snow on me,” said Liberto.

He noted that people are used to seeing Christmas decorations at this time of year, but “they’re not expecting to have a person hiding inside the Christmas decorations.”

“Until I move or give my position away, people generally don’t know that I’m right there, in front of them,” Liberto said.

His character of “Mr. Christmas Tree” is inspired by The Crazy Bushman, who stars in a number of viral online videos that depict him standing along sidewalks while disguised as a bush and startling people as they walk past. Liberto performs as several characters based on the Bushman, visiting music festivals and campgrounds in the region while in disguise, then surprising people and evoking laughter.

“It’s absolutely magical, walking around as a Christmas tree,” Liberto said. “I don’t have to say anything; I can get them smiling, giggling and laughing their butts off.”

People’s typical responses include “wow” or “oh, my God,” even a few expletives, but often “a whole lot of compliments.” Spectators often pull out their phones after the surprise to take photos, or they pose for pictures with Liberto.

His character also “works across the religious spectrum,” as he has met many Jews and Muslims in New York who appreciate the costume. The occasional person “might try to Grinch out on me” after being startled, but “I generally just respond with positivity” and wish them a happy holiday, according to Liberto.

“It just makes my day to make so many people laugh and smile,” he said. “It makes my holiday season a lot brighter.”

He has continued to perform as his various characters during the pandemic, although he stressed he takes precautions to protect himself and encourages spectators to wear masks and practice social distancing, even asking if they have any symptoms of COVID-19.

Liberto also tries to stay away from other people, avoids bars and restaurants and typically only goes out when visiting retail stores to purchase costume supplies. He got a test for COVID-19, which came back negative, before he left for New York.

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He said he will get himself tested again in light of Gov. Larry Hogan’s order, announced last Thursday, Dec. 17, before Liberto left for New York, banning out-of-state travel except for essential reasons during the holidays. Anybody who travels outside of Maryland or visits the state must get tested for COVID-19 or quarantine themselves for 10 days when they arrive in Maryland, according to the order.

“I’m doing good,” he said early Monday evening. “I just want to make sure that I’m not asymptomatic.”

Liberto noted that his Mr. Christmas Tree character brightens other people’s holiday seasons as well as his own.

“That little bit of endorphin rush from being scared just slightly, it lays good memories in the brain,” he said.

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