Organizers of the annual Festival of Trees at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Washington didn’t need anyone to tell them the event was special and beautiful. They could see that for themselves.

But several years ago when a bride from the west side of the state told them that she wanted to book the church for her wedding at Christmastime so her guests could see and enjoy the festival, they were surprised at the reach the event had gained.

Although there aren’t any official numbers on how many people have viewed the Festival of Trees since it was first held here in 2008, it’s estimated to be in the thousands. That is based partly on the amount of nonperishable food items that have been collected by the event in that time — more than 12,000 items, last year alone.

There’s no admission charge for the festival, which every year features five to six dozen themed Christmas trees specially decorated by individuals, organizations and businesses from around the community. But people are asked to bring a nonperishable food item donation for the local pantries.

Attending the Festival of Trees has become a family tradition for many people, a way to celebrate the holiday together. A good number make a point of capturing a special photo to use on their Christmas card.

“It is a good venue for Christmas photos,” said Cecil Blankenship, who was one of the original Festival volunteers.

Trees are displayed in the auditorium, the parlor, the atrium and in the hallways on both floors throughout St. Peter’s. People can spend as much or as little time as they have for viewing the trees, but organizers recommend setting aside at least an hour to make it all the way through the display.

“You miss something if you don’t linger,” said Ruth Wood, who has been volunteering for the Festival for many years.

Her favorite time to view the festival is at twilight, just as the sun is setting.

“It almost takes your breath away,” she remarked.

Idea Grew From Stewardship Committee

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Festival of Trees, which was an idea suggested by the St. Peter’s UCC stewardship committee as a way to bring in donations for the food pantries, said Blankenship.

That first year the festival featured around 40 trees and collected around 500 food items. Over the years, the festival has grown to include as many as 80 trees, but the amount of food collected has multiplied to 24 times the original amount.

That’s partly because many of the organizations and businesses that sponsor trees hold food drives of their own, Wood noted.

People are told to place their food donation under the tree that they like the best, and at the end of the festival, the tree with the most food under it is something of Best in Show winner, although there are no prizes, other than bragging rights.

Wood said it’s fun to watch people who come in with their food donations try to decide under which tree they should place them. They carry the food item around as they browse through all of the trees before making their final decision, some taking their “vote” very seriously.

Creativity on Display

Both Wood and Blankenship understand the challenge people face in deciding which tree is their favorite each year. All of the trees are beautiful, and so many are truly creative, they said.

The Mid-Missouri Fine Arts Society has created a “tree” using art easels with artwork and frames hung on it like ornaments. A teenage boy has created trees using fishing poles one year and horseshoes another year.

In years past, Wood has created a “tree” for the festival using poinsettia plants and a tiered stand. There also has been a “tree” made entirely from wooden dowels with absolutely no greenery. Ornaments were simply tied to the dowels.

“The one I liked was made entirely with books,” said Blankenship. “There was a big book at the bottom and the books were just stacked up one on top of the other in the shape of a tree.”

Most people do use artificial Christmas trees as their base, but then get creative with their themes and decorations — Darth Vader, Harry Potter, the Grinch, Mizzou . . . Last year there was a soccer tree dedicated to the Washington High School soccer team. Another year, someone decorated a tree using photos of athletes from different eras.

There have been various Cardinals-themed trees over the years — one in 2011 decorated with a replica World Series trophy on top (since the team won it all that year), and another decorated with the season tickets that a family didn’t need when the team failed to make the playoffs that year.

One year there was a golf tree that was decorated with clubs, balls and tees. It was set up inside a plastic swimming pool filled with sand to represent the sand trap.

There has been a “red neck tree” that was decorated with broken ornaments and other random items that might be found in the woods. Some of the lights were deliberately taken out so they didn’t all work, said Blankenship with a laugh.

The Washington Garden Club one year decorated a tree for “The Twelve Days of Christmas” featuring ornaments they had carefully handmade to represent each of the days’ gifts. The Master Gardeners tree is always decorated with items from nature.

“People take these ordinary trees and turn them into something else, like works of art,” Wood remarked. “They are amazing.”

A “Remembrance Tree” created by a man whose wife had cancer is always popular, said Wood, noting it’s usually located on the second floor in an alcove just outside the elevator. It’s decorated with messages from people to their loved ones who have had cancer, and people who visit the festival can add their own messages to the tree.

“It’s a very moving tree,” said Wood. “People stop there and read all of the messages.”

The American Legion Auxiliary tree also is always very moving, said Blankenship. It features photos of veterans and is decorated with patriotic colors.

There are not any rules on how the trees have to be decorated, only deadlines for having them finished and then taken down. Seeing the creativity people have is a big part of the fun and what draws people to the festival year after year.

Name Has Evolved as Festival Grew Larger

The first year or two that the festival was held, it was known as St. Peter’s Festival of Trees because most, if not all, of the people who were putting up trees were from St. Peter’s, said Wood. But as more people from other churches or groups got involved, the name was changed to the Community Festival of Trees.

Today the name is simply Festival of Trees.

Anyone is welcome to register to have a tree in the festival, as long as there is still room. There is only enough room for 85 trees, said Wood.

Every year the committee who organizes the festival mails out registration forms to people who have participated in the past. The goal is to have a wide variety of people and groups participating from across the community.

“We have made an effort to contact businesses and groups to put up trees to make it even more of a community event,” said Wood. “We want it to be everybody. And I think now we have almost every church in town represented.”

For the first few years, people needed to bring their own tree to set up, but now St. Peter’s has amassed a collection of 50 to 60 artificial trees ranging in size from 6 to 9 feet tall that they loan to anyone in need. They are stored in a “Christmas Tree Room” at the church.

Organizers begin meeting in August to plan for the festival, and as the registrations come in, they begin plotting out where each tree will be placed. They don’t want to have trees with similar themes placed too close to each other.

Concerts and Events

To help draw more people in to see the festival, St. Peter’s hosts a series of concerts and activities in December. The first event this year is the Civic Chorus concert set for this Sunday, Dec. 2, at 3 p.m.

There also will be a student music recital Sunday, Dec. 9, from 2 to 6 p.m. and a Festival Concert featuring the bell and church choir Sunday, Dec. 16, at 3 p.m.

For the last several years, the festival has been part of the annual Washington Holiday House Tour.

‘Fun Way to Give’

All of the food that is collected is divided equally (both in anount and kind) between the three food pantries in Washington — St. Peters, St. Francis Borgia and Loving Hearts Outreach.

“The food pantry workers have had clients who come in and tell them that if they buy food, then they can’t pay their electric bill, that they have to choose,” said Blankenship. “So that is why we want to fill the food pantries. So people don’t have to make that kind of choice.”

Wood is warmed by the generosity of people who donate the food, and she is amazed at how many items are collected each year.

“We worry about the floor sometimes when we stack it all up,” she said with a chuckle. “It’s a fun way for people to give to the food pantries.

“It’s amazing in what the festival has turned out to be . . . what it means to the community now,” said Wood. “When you mention it to people, they get all excited, say, ‘Oh, I go every year and bring my mom or bring my grandma!’ Then you have people ask if they can put up a tree and get so excited about contributing that way too.”

St. Peter’s UCC is located at 20 W. Fifth St. in Downtown Washington. Groups who would like to view the Festival of Trees during the day during the week can call St. Peter’s at 636-239-6176 to make arrangements for a private viewing.