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Participants get creative for the 36th annual Festival of Trees

“There are special stories and special moments for every tree,” one said.

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Laura Wiskow, left, and Amanda Drazkowski add a tree topper to their “Whoville” themed tree in preparation for the Festival of Trees Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, at The Empire Event Center in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Traci Westcott
We are part of The Trust Project.

Hold the tinsel, red bulbs and star toppers. Cue the Barbies, rocks, tea cups and sewing kits.

Participants in the 36th annual Festival of Trees found creative ways to trim their trees, some with the hopes of catching the eye of top bidders.

“It’s a point of pride,” said Mary Jones, a Pine Island resident who decorated her tree in the theme of “Dark Romance,” drawing inspiration from gothic Halloween trinkets. Jones described the exhilaration of seeing someone fight to sponsor her creation. “It’s like ‘Oh my gosh! They chose my tree!’”

Proceeds from the event support Hiawatha Homes, an organization that supports people who have disabilities through providing at-home and community-based services. Ticket sales and sponsorships from area families and businesses fuel the cause. Sponsorships range from $1,000 to $15,000.

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Trees are readied in preparation for the Festival of Trees Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, at The Empire Event Center in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Traci Westcott

Haley Landherr has attended Festival of Trees since she was a child growing up in the Rochester area. Now, she’s relishes the chance to volunteer.

“It’s great to really see the community come together to rally behind a good cause,” said Landherr, the publicity chair for the festival. The community has rallied, even during the pandemic. Last year was the first when organizers displayed the trees around downtown, giving attendees the chance to view them while staying socially distanced or in their car. That tradition will continue this year the week of Nov. 22.

The trees are decorated at the Empire Event Center and then wrapped and carefully transported to their destinations. This is where the glue guns and pins come in handy.

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Mare Sloan and her mother Vesna decorate their “Just Keep Swimming” tree while preparing for the Festival of Trees Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, at The Empire Event Center in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Traci Westcott

For many families, the event has special significance.

The Sloan family has participated in the Festival of Trees for two decades. In past years, they’ve channeled gingerbread man, Mickey Mouse and abominable snowman themes. This year, they opted for an eye-catching “Finding Nemo” motif.

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They spent weeks hand painting ornaments and signs for the tree, all bearing characters from the movie or key quotes.

Mare Sloane, who decorated with her brother Alan and mother Vesna, pointed to the “just keep swimming” sign as she described why they choose the theme.

“With the way the world is, I think a lot of people can relate to that,” said Mare. It’s especially meaningful given that her dad was recently diagnosed with cancer, she said. The family needed a reminder to keep their spirits high.

“Everyone can hopefully relate to it,” she said of the tree’s message.

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Wendy Cook places an ornament on her “Home of the Free” themed tree while preparing for the Festival of Trees Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, at The Empire Event Center in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Traci Westcott

The event was also a family affair for Priscilla Gangrevenhof and her daughters.

“There are special stories and special moments for every tree,” Gangrevenhof said. She starts planning tree themes a year in advance. In fact, she’s already landed on one for 2022. But that, she said, will remain top secret for now.

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“It’s more than just a Christmas decoration,” she said.

Nora Eckert has previously worked with NPR, The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland and undergraduate degree from St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis. She’s reported on national investigations into jail suicides, how climate change disproportionately affects the urban poor, the spread of coronavirus in nursing homes and the race for artificial blood. She joined the Post Bulletin team in January 2021 as their investigative reporter.
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