Christmas Tree Festival brings familes together for charity

Olivia Dydzuhn, 9, of Monroe, checks out one of the decorated rooms on the second floor of Burr Homestead during the Christmas Tree Festival. (photo by Karen Kovacs Dydzuhn)

Ushering in the holiday season, the 2012 Fairfield Christmas Tree Festival drew crowds to its four-day specialty programs. Friday night’s “Sharing Is Caring” annual children’s event attracted hundreds of children who were delighted to meet Santa Claus, be entertained by comedic magician Nick Morriello as Mr. Abracadabra, create festive arts and crafts, and have their faces painted.

A child-friendly dinner buffet was provided by A&S Italian Fine Foods, Billy’s Bakery and The Pantry.

Held at the historic Burr Homestead, the “Sharing Is Caring” festivities are part of the 32-year-old Festival of Trees, a benefit that raises funds for nonprofit organizations in Fairfield County.

This year’s two beneficiaries are the Norma F. Pfriem Breast Care Center, an organization committed to caring for women with breast cancer, and the Cardinal Shehan Center, a Bridgeport facility that provides various programs and services for inner-city youngsters.

Fairfield parent Katie Peloso said she’s attended the children’s holiday program for several years.

“We all just love it,” Peloso said. “It’s the best night in town.”

The two-hour children’s party winds up just in time for youngsters and their families to take the short walk to the Town Green for the annual Christmas Tree Lighting.

Peloso’s 8-year old daughter, Caleigh, opened with the children’s party by singing a medley of Christmas carols as a member of the St. Thomas Aquinas School Choir.

“I love singing here because we go to see the Tree Lighting afterward,” Caleigh said.

Marinelle Mayo, co-chairman of the festival’s publicity committee and a board member, said the annual stroll to the town tree lighting is a great way to end the evening.

“It’s got a nice, old-fashioned feel to it that families seem to enjoy,” Mayo said.

Like many children of adult volunteers, Mayo’s daughter Lauren, 14, was excited to lend a hand. Lauren and her friend Rosie O’Mahony, 13, dressed as Santa’s helpers and handed out candy canes.

“It’s wonderful to see everyone coming together in the community,” Mayo said. For the past three years, she has been active in the festival’s planning because she feels it’s important to “give back to the community.”

“When I hear who the beneficiaries are going to be, I think, How could I not help?” Mayo continued. “We are just happy that 100% of the festival’s proceeds is going to these deserving nonprofits.”

Jessica Wheeler, one of the tri-chairmen of the “Sharing Is Caring” children’s event, along with Cindy Raney and Ali Mitchell, said she joined the festival’s organizational committee as a way to carry on her family’s tradition. Wheeler’s mother-in-law, Fairfield artist Cecily Zerega, is one of the founding members of the Festival of Trees fund-raiser.

“The festival needs the next generation to keep this going,” Wheeler said. “We always say this is the perfect way to kick off the holidays. This gets us all in the swing of Christmas.”

Some of its founding members have stayed on as volunteers, too. On Friday night, Zerega volunteered to collect admission at the entrance to Burr Homestead.

During a break, Zerega reminisced about the festival’s first year.

“I was responsible for staging the whole house,” Zerega said.

Zerega said the event was put together in a mere six weeks.

Today committees begin to form and actively work on the Christmas extravaganza in February.

One tradition that hasn’t changed over the years is Zerega’s beautiful design and creation of a handmade quilt that she donates for a raffle. This year Zerega contributed a large Noah’s Ark-themed quilt and a smaller one she dubbed “Noah’s Ark-the Misfits.”

A holiday runner, crafted by Fairfield artist Edie Faile, was also donated this season.

Raffle proceeds are typically given to a smaller community organization. This year’s recipient is Emerge Inc. in Bridgeport, founded to assist women and children who are homeless survivors of domestic abuse.

Each room in the Burr Homestead was festooned with unique Christmas trees, wreaths and eclectic ornamentation. There was a holiday boutique where visitors could purchase clever gifts and adornments for their own home. Custom-designed evergreen wreaths were also available.

The Festival of Trees kicked off on Thursday night with its annual “Share a Toast” Wine Tasting and Beer Garden. Presented by Bottlerocket and Southport Brewing Co., the event was sold out, Mayo said.

“It was fantastic,” said Mayo.

In addition to the children’s event on Friday evening, “A Season We Share” Holiday Gala took place on Saturday night. Guests shared a light dinner, cocktails and dancing. Prizes were bid on at the gala’s silent auction.

The Royal Tea Co., featuring Fairfield’s Bigelow Tea, hosted a “Share a Cup of Tea” party on Sunday afternoon.

In planning the various happenings, all of the committee members try to be “cost-effective,” Wheeler noted.

“We want to be able to give as much money as possible to our beneficiaries,” she said.

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