Dec. 03--As a child in the 1990s, former Hartford resident Liz Connors recalls the annual family outing to the Wadsworth Atheneum, where the start of the Christmas season included the tour of the lavishly decorated trees at the Festival of Trees, supper downtown and a walk through Hartford to admire the holiday lights.
Now living in New Haven, she still considers what is now known as the Festival of Trees and Traditions the official launch of her own family's holiday season.
"It just hits my heartstrings and stirs up good memories and makes good memories," said the 31-year-old, mother of two. "It's part of our holiday tradition. And you can't give up tradition."
And so it is, not only for the thousands of people who will trek to the city's Main Street museum for the 39th Festival of Trees and Traditions this week, but for those who have been longtime contributors to the seasonal fundraiser, considered one of the city's oldest and most cherished holiday events.
Each year garden clubs, retailers, banks, decorators, designers, businesses, community groups and individuals craft trees, garlands, wreaths and table arrangements now reflecting not only Christmas but other December holidays as well, including Kwanza and Hanukkah. The decorations are sold, priced from $50 to $2,500, with proceeds benefiting the atheneum.
Coordinated by its Women's Committee, the festival began in 1974 and has grown each year adding a variety of family-oriented events and entertainment during its 10-day run. Since it began, the festival has attracted more than 500,000 visitors and raised about $600,000. It has been featured in the New York Times and this year showcases decorations from more than 200 contributors.
"We are so glad to be able to do it," said James Amadeo, Macy's chief designer, who has developed the store's tree donations to the festival for years. "Filene's did it before us and G. Fox before that," said Amadeo, referring to the store chains that pre-dated the Macy's ownership. "Some years it got tough financially but it is for charity and we feel compelled to do it," he said. "And we are so glad to be able to."
This year Macy's is donating three trees. The three, all displayed in the Morgan Great Hall, include "Silver and Gold," a traditional 12-foot tree done in mirrors, silver and gold ornaments and silver and gold mesh garland and "Here Comes The Sun," a copper and purple creation using bent copper tubing as garland and topped with an over-sized copper and gold painted sunburst. "Contemporary" reflects a more modern theme, decorated in teal and purple, feathers, peacocks, glass balls and colored lights.
"It is always exciting for us to create for the festival," said Amadeo. "We just found out three weeks ago about doing three trees instead of one so it was a miracle to pull it off but we did it."
Contributions over the years have reflected traditions, culture, lifestyle trends and timely causes. There have been Whalers trees, when the professional hockey team was in Hartford, "Nutcracker" ballet trees, Red Sox trees and Patriots trees, breast cancer awareness trees, Governor's Trees, including one in the 1970s crafted by late governor, Ella Grasso, media trees and Travelers' trees that at one time, featured a Currier and Ives theme, reflective of the coveted calendars the insurance business distributed to clients.
For the past several years, Travelers, also one of the original festival donors, has decorated its tree to underscore the ultimate sacrifice of the state's military. Called "Connecticut Fallen Heroes," the tree is decorated in red, white and blue featuring ornaments with pictures of those active duty Connecticut soldiers who have died since 9/11.
"We will continue to do this kind of tree each year until all of our service men and women are back in the United States, said Mary Ann Lafemine, who is part of the Employees Club team that coordinates the tree project. "And when that happens we are thinking of a tree done in all white ribbons to celebrate."
Among the many donors each year are also schools, church groups, non-profits and many individuals who consider creating a tree and donating it to the festival, part of their own holiday tradition.
"I do it with my dad every year," said Pam Evans, who this year with her dad, Fran Debonis, created "The Little Drummer Boy" tree, a life-sized drummer boy using a tiny drum-decorated tree as the body.
"We spend money wildly on it," she laughed, noting that the two go to the festival together each year to see all the trees. "We usually get the inspiration for the next year's tree as we walk around," said the Bolton resident, who buys the materials during the after-Christmas sales. Among the displays the two have created with help from one of her dad's friends and some family include the re-creation of Snoopy's famed, light-bedecked doghouse.
Another long time individual contributor is Angela Sacco, an amateur artist from East Hartford.
"We started about 10 years ago," she said, explaining how she, her sisters and their mother first visited the festival and wondered how they too could make a tree contribution. It became their family tradition, a reason to get together and do something that not only was artistic but benefited a cause. While her mother has passed away, Sacco and her sisters still create a donation, including a special one this year.
This year's partridge-in-a-pear tree, "First Day of Christmas,",is in memory of her mother, Beatrice, with a traditional theme and a contemporary edge featuring silver pears with orange glitter, fruit blossoms and white lights.
"It makes you start thinking about Christmas in July," laughed Sacco."It's a fun thing and I still get a rush when I walk into the festival each year and see all the trees," she said. "I think we would miss it if we ever stopped doing it."
The Festival of Trees and Traditions is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Dec. 9. Admission to the festival is $13 for adults, $3 for children and museum members and discounts available for seniors and students. For more information go to thewadsworth.org.
(c)2012 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)
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