By Margot LeSage Regan
---- — It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas on Branch Street in Methuen thanks to more than 200 businesses, schools, community organizations and individuals.
And just a few thousand twinkle lights, ornaments and garland.
Today, the 19th annual Festival of Trees kicks off in the Valley Office Park at 13 Branch St. The opening night features the fourth annual “Taste of the Festival,” a culinary celebration featuring specialty foods from 25 local restaurants and a guest appearance by chef and restaurateur Paul Wahlberg of Hingham’s Alma Nove and Wahlburgers. Tickets for the evening culinary event are $50 each. It is also the night when the festival’s 225 unique and amazing Christmas trees are unveiled.
Created by businesses, families, schools, community organizations and nonprofits and highly creative individuals, the trees at the festival are not your standard Christmas trees. From a tree entirely decorated with hedgehog ornaments, including a large, stuffed hedgehog tree topper, to a pink neon tree from a local spa featuring nail polish and lip gloss as ornaments, to a tree made entirely made of toy fire trucks, each one represents the creator’s idea of the holiday season, and each one will be raffled off with the proceeds benefiting Methuen’s Preservation Grant Program.
To date, the Festival of Trees has contributed $1.2 million to fund more than 140 preservation projects throughout the Merrimack Valley.
“This just gets bigger and better every year,” said Festival Tree coordinator Cindy Mazella. She said the festival has come a long way from the 17 trees it featured in its first year.
“We held it at the library and it was only open for one weekend,” Mazella said.
Now the festival boasts more than 28,000 visitors annually.
The lucky winners get to take home the tree as it is, Mazella explained, complete with its lights and decorations. In many instances, the trees feature bonus gifts on and under the tree like dolls, trucks, stuffed animals and gift certificates. The raffle will be drawn after the close of the festival on Dec. 2.
Last weekend, the trees’ creators were busy stringing lights, hanging garland and making their trees stand out. Karen Hamel, a dental assistant at Andover Pediatrics, was busy making sure the stuffed gingerbread people on the Andover Pediatrics’ Tree “Sweet Tooth” were just right.
“Everybody has a sweet tooth,” laughed Hamel when asked about such as sweet tree sponsored by a dentist. “In moderation, everything is OK.”
This year the festival even features a tree from Colombia. On the “Juan Valdez Christmas” tree, Maria and Martha Forero handmade each ornament from clay. The stitching on the tree skirt and accessories was also done by hand, according to festival organizers.
Mazella said what she loves the most is seeing how different each tree is. While some have intricate beaded ornaments or crystals or brightly-colored balls and lights in every color of the rainbow, others are simply adorned by handmade ornaments made out of Styrofoam cups and toilet paper rolls.
“You name it, we have it,” she laughed.
As Tim Lussier helped set up the Festival Café where visitors can enjoy snacks during the festival, he said his wife, Sharon Pollard, came up with the idea for a festival 20 years ago as a way to raise money for historic preservation. Lussier said they never dreamed it would turn into such an event.
At the time, he said, the couple thought it was an original idea, only to find out that one such festival was being held in Pittsfield in western Massachusetts. Today there are hundreds of festivals like this across the country.
But what makes this festival unique, he added, is that all the trees are given away via raffle.
The festival has something for everyone — food, family fun with appearances from Santa and Wally the Green Monster as well as a chance to win $2,000 in a special tree raffle “Look for the Light.”
As Maureen Pollard, the festival chairwoman, walked along the rows of trees in the atrium of the office building last weekend, she often stopped to look in awe in many of the trees. How could she not?
Each tree is eye-catching, either for its pure beauty and attention to detail — like the winter scene hand-painted on a bed sheet that is the backdrop to a woodland Christmas tree display.
Pollard said this festival lets people show off their creative sides and really challenge themselves by trying to outdo what they did in previous years.
“This is such a community event,” said Pollard. “This has become a meeting place for people every year.”
Mazella added that many people decorate trees in memory of loved ones.
“It helps them work through the grief; it’s almost like therapy,” she said.
Like George Siodis Jr., 15, and his mother, Natasha Knight, of Salem, N.H. The pair has decorated a tree for the last three years in memory of Siodis’ father, George, who passed away four years ago. Their tree this year, “Have a Berry Christmas,” is decked out with hundreds of bears and pays homage to Siodis’ Greek heritage by featuring the colors blue and white.
“The first Christmas after he was gone, it was really hard,” said Knight. “We thought this would be a nice way to honor his memory and do something charitable at the same time.”
She said her son loves history, so this was a perfect fit. The pair started working on the tree in February, searching for ornaments, and even made about 100 themselves.
Another tree, “Super Nick,” was created in memory of Nicholas DeFelice from Dracut, who lost his battle with cancer in June at the age of 9. The hockey-themed tree has Boston Bruins decorations, hockey puck ornaments and Nick’s picture atop the tree.
Ann Shapiro, secretary of the Methuen Youth Soccer Association, was making sure the association’s tree “Kicking It” was ready to go last Sunday. It is the association’s first year in the Festival of Trees.
The tree, decorated in league’s colors of blue and white, is decorated with photographs of each team in the league and other soccer-themed décor. A glow-in-the dark soccer ball serves as the tree topper.
“That’s going to be a nice treat for whoever wins,” laughed Shapiro.
Complete with leopard-print garland and tree skirt, “Santa’s Salon Safari” showed off Connie Vergados’ wild side. The safari-themed tree features goodies such as nail polish, mascara and hair products from her salon, Salon Vergados in North Andover.
“We do this every year, we just love Christmas,” said Vergados as she and her sons Basil, Costa and Kyros helped decorate the tree. “It’s just a nice, family event that helps a great cause.”
IF YOU GO
What: The 19th Festival of Trees
When: Nov. 17 to Dec. 1.
Where: 13 Branch St., Methuen
Special Event: Tickets for the Gala Opening on Nov. 16, “Taste of the Festival,” are limited to 400 and cost $50 each. Please call 978-685-8878 for tickets and more information. Information can also be found on www.methuenfestivaloftrees.com.
Weekdays: 5 to 9 p.m.
Weekends 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Wednesday, Nov. 21 — special hours: noon to 9 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving Day
Friday, Nov. 23: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 1: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 2: Tree Raffle starts at 8 a.m.
Weekdays: $8 for adults
Weekends: $10 for adults
Children 12 and under: FREE
Special Children’s activities
Nov. 18, 23, 24, 25 and Dec. 1— Santa Claus 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Nov. 18 — Jim the Balloon Guy 3 to 6 p.m.
Nov. 23 — The Mad Science Show 3 & 4:15 p.m.
Nov. 24 — Meet Wally the Green Monster 3 to 5 p.m.
Nov. 25 — Romper Rhythm Puppets 3 & 4:15 p.m.
Dec. 1 — BJ Hickman Magic Show 3 & 4:15 p.m.
Seniors and Red Hat Weekend
Saturday, Nov. 17 and Sunday, Nov. 18 — all seniors and Red Hat members admitted for free all weekend.