Petaluma’s Festival of Trees mixes free holiday fun with giving

Festival of Trees offers free family fun mixed with charity|

The holiday spirit seems to shine brightest when community comes together to celebrate the season while raising funds for a good cause. It’s the reason why the annual Festival of Trees has grown into such a popular December event, expected to draw more than 2,000 guests to the Hotel Petaluma this weekend.

“We knew by showing up, we could make something meaningful,” said Krista Gawronski, founder of the Petaluma Fabulous Women, which hosts the fundraiser. “We want to help people while also giving the community something joyous.”

The Festival of Trees is part creative fundraiser, part community celebration that is free to attend, and this year carries the theme “Hometown Christmas.” Dozens of businesses, families and nonprofit groups commit to decorating a Christmas tree for the event, which are then put up in a silent auction to raise funds for local and international nonprofits.

“Each group gets the same, 4-foot, artificial tree,” said Melissa Becker, a Fabulous Women board member. “What they do with it is totally up to them. We have a David Bowie tree, we have an under-the-sea theme, we have a Disney tree.”

Most trees come with bonuses, like gift cards or presents. Some are works of art that can be enjoyed for years to come, like the metal tree crafted by Kevin Clark of Reared in Steel, who is best known for his contributions on the Playa at Burning Man. Another group made a tree that glows with lights that sync to a smartphone so anyone can design their own Christmas masterpieces.

“Each tree tells its own story,” Gawronski said.

Since the Petaluma event premiered six years ago, it has supported the Rwanda School Project, a charity close to Becker’s heart. Her father, Dr. Karl Smith, launched the effort after his church went on a humanitarian trip to the African nation. The secondary school they built has educated more than 160 young people.

“It’s really changed the lives of a lot of students,” Becker said, adding that Festival of Trees has raised around $50,000 for the school.

The event has raised more than $100,000 to date, including funds for local youth groups and community endeavors. In November, the Fabulous Women collected grant applications from 21 local nonprofits with plans to better the community. On Friday night, the two grant winners will be announced during the opening celebration.

“The good work being done behind the scenes in this town is humbling,” Becker said of the nonprofit applications. “We love that our job is to collect money and give it back. We love being Santa’s elves, it makes us very happy.”

One doesn’t have to bid to come marvel at the more than 60 trees on display this year. There will also be a host of seasonal activities to keep guests entertained.

Snow will fall in the Hotel Petaluma’s courtyard. Professional photographer Victoria Webb, who specializes in portraits, will be on hand snapping photos of children and families with Santa Claus. Crafters and other vendors will offer their goods in the marketplace. Local bakers have filled the Sweet Shop with a wide selection of goodies, with all proceeds going back to the charities. Dirty Red Barn, Pacific Empire Chorus and Petaluma Pete will perform seasonal songs.

“It really is this sweet little hometown event,” Gawronski said.

Festival of Trees takes place Friday, Nov. 30, from 6-9 p.m., and Saturday, Dec. 1, from 3-9 p.m. Trees are up for bid until closing, unless someone pays the “buy it now” price. Bidders need not be present to win.

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