Up close, the Festival of Trees doesn’t look too different in its 50th edition than in any other year: ornately decorated Christmas trees, many of them with themes — the Utah Jazz, or the children’s game I Spy or “The Mandalorian” — all lit up and ready to be sold to benefit Primary Children’s Hospital.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, the only way people will see these trees up close is on the internet.
The festival opened inside the Vivint Smart Home Arena to the media Monday, to provide a sneak preview of the 150 trees that will be shown on the event’s website, MakeGoodGrow.org, and put up for silent auction — along with wreaths, quilts and Nativity scenes.
The silent auction begins on the website Dec. 1. A live variety show is planned for Dec. 4, with singer Alex Boyé and 15-year-old actress Cami Carver, a cancer survivor who received chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant at Primary Children’s, as co-hosts.
“It’s been a challenge trying to figure out and logistically get things moving,” said Shauna Davis, chairwoman of the festival’s volunteer board.
Most years, Davis said, the festival would take in 750 trees, and 1,400 auction items, at the Mountain America Expo Center, all in one day. With the pandemic, Davis said, festival organizers started looking for another venue, in part because the Expo Center was tabbed to be a field hospital for non-COVID patients in case area hospitals hit capacity with coronavirus patients.
The festival considered staging the event at its warehouse, which would have limited the number of trees and auction items. The Miller family, which has owned the Jazz for decades, donated the Vivint Arena as a location, allowing the festival to display more items, Davis said.
Davis said Festival of Trees is a volunteer effort, with many Utahns coming back year after year to decorate and donate trees. She pointed to one gold-laden tree by Utah artist Lowell Baum, who has been involved with the festival for 40 years.
“It’s the beginning of the holidays for me when I get to see Lowell standing by a tree, decorating, and pointing and telling his sons exactly what has to be moved,” Davis said.
Linda Meier has been decorating a tree for the festival for 29 years — a tradition that started as a promise to her daughter, Nicole, who was treated for cancer at Primary Children’s Hospital, and died in 1991 at the age of 11.
The Christmas before she died, Nicole and her family toured Festival of Trees, Meier said. Nicole asked what happened to the trees, and her mother explained that they would be auctioned off to help kids at Primary Children’s. Some of the trees included photos of children who had died while in care there — including some Nicole knew.
“She said, ‘Mom, we need to help all those kids in the hospital,’” Meier said. “And I said, ‘Do you realize you’re one of those sick kids?’ She said, ‘Yes, but we still need to do a tree next year.’”
Nicole died the following fall, and Meier said she couldn’t make a tree that year. “It was too hard, it was too raw,” she said. The next year, Meier made her first tree, because “I really had to keep my promise to my daughter. So I decided I was going to do one tree.”
Meier’s first tree was sold for $1,200. Meier said one of her trees once fetched $11,000.
“It gave me a lot of joy to do this, and it makes me feel like I’m paying back a little bit for what we received at Primary Children’s,” Meier said.
Meier starts planning her trees a year in advance. She was finishing up last year’s tree when she found a bunch of plush moose dolls, which she bought to be the stars of this year’s tree, called “Merry Christ-Moose to You.” The moose are in playful poses, one holding skis, others on small toboggans. She recently found some snowmen figures, which will feature in next year’s tree.
“A tree that looks like Christmas is a good one to have,” Meier said. “If it brings joy, and makes you feel happy when you look at it — that’s what I feel like.”