Festival of Trees returns with a bit of magic for the holidays

Jeanine Matlow
Special to The Detroit News

In 2020, many local fundraisers had to be canceled and Festival of Trees was no exception. But the seasonal, glistening event returns this year to its former glory for a good cause.

The 37th annual benefit for the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Foundation held at the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center in Dearborn kicks off with a preview gala on Saturday night and runs through Nov. 28.

For those who have yet to attend, director Theresa Diefenbach says you can feel the holiday spirit from the moment you walk in the door. This year, visitors get to enjoy 60 Christmas trees with all the trimmings, along with wreaths, tabletop trees and a gift shop.

Highlights for kids include Santa, a train set and an entire city made from Legos by Michigan Lego Users Group. “It’s a happy experience for families and for everyone,” says Diefenbach. “The best reason is that it’s for the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Foundation.” Festival of Trees is the largest fundraiser for the foundation, which supports pediatric research.   

While some trees are pre-sponsored or pre-sold, others will be available for purchase. There will also be raffles for the contents of a money tree with origami dollars and a toy tree. The money tree winner gets a check for $1,000, while the winner for the toy tree raffle gets to take home the toys.

The decorations are meant to surprise and delight. “You’re not going to see the same tree again and again. The designers go over the top with their creativity,” says Diefenbach. For instance, she says the friendship ornament tree that features a new ornament from the Dearborn Glass Academy each year is a real showstopper. “The last time we had the event, it was an upside-down tree,” she adds.

Festival of Trees, 2019

Around 7,000 people attended the last benefit in 2019. This time, there will be a mask mandate in the ballroom for the safety of the volunteers and all the special needs groups that come to the event. “We just want to keep it safe for everybody,” says Diefenbach.

When Festival of Trees could not be held last year, there was a lot of disappointment. “This year, once we found out we would be able to do the event, I did a social media blitz and it was 100% favorable,” she says. “The community was so excited to be able to bring it back into our lives. We can’t wait and we are so thankful to have them back where families have come since 1985.”

They are also grateful for everyone who contributes. “We are a volunteer-run organization and we always need more volunteers, especially this year,” she says.

Personal project

Monica Spatafora has been donating her time and talent as a tree designer for Festival of Trees for about a decade. A dental hygienist by day, she does some interior decorating for friends on the side.

This year, she will decorate six trees for the event. “I love designing and I really love gardening,” she says. “Tree decorating is my winter gardening. It’s my happy place.”

Some of her past creations have featured nautical and whimsical children’s themes and all of these trees require an extra step. “Everything has to be secured because of travel,” she explains. “Ideally, you want the tree to get to a home or business and still maintain its beauty.”

Her efforts are worthwhile. “It’s a lovely event and it’s a great group of people,” she says. “It’s such a heartwarming thing to be part of and the money goes for pediatric research.”

Spatafora has a special connection to the cause. She shops all year to create Joey’s Corner at the event in honor of her late best friend Joey Pirrone, who had Down syndrome and heart defects that required multiple surgeries at Children’s Hospital. He died  in 2015 at the age of 20, but his memory and his love for Christmas live on through her displays. His mother, Nina, has also been involved with Festival of Trees for years, and Spatafora recently married Nina’s brother, going from family friend to family member.

Repeat performance

As one of the top event sponsors along with the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center and Palmer Moving Services, English Gardens remains a big contributor. “We have been a sponsor ever since it started and we decorate a tree every year,” says Jennifer Youngquest, vice president of marketing. They also donate Christmas trees and wreaths and a portion of the sales from their Holiday Open House.  

Their tree often features traditional themes like angels. “Our designer has free rein to use whatever inspires her and she never disappoints,” says Youngquest.   

Novelty lights, such as starlight LED spears, lend dimension to the embellishments on the tree. “We’re happy to showcase our talents and share ideas,” she says. “It’s all about the kids and everyone from English Gardens loves the cause and the event. It’s a tradition.”

Festival of Trees

The 37th annual Festival of Trees returns with the Preview Gala on Saturday night at the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center, 15801 Michigan Ave. in Dearborn. VIP tickets ($125 per person) feature early admission at 6:30 p.m., a wristband that allows entrance to the Sky Lounge, open bar and heavy appetizers. Patron tickets ($75) feature admission at 7:30 p.m., cash bar, and light appetizers in the ballroom. All guests can enjoy live entertainment and sweets and treats.

The event runs from Nov. 20 (Preview Gala) to Nov. 28 (closed for Thanksgiving). Tickets are $5 for adults, $3 for children and admission is free for kids under 2.

For tickets and additional information, go to fot.org.