Delaware Hospice’s annual Festival of Trees fundraiser was nearly felled by COVID-19.
Instead, more compact versions are being created at each county’s office, with trees and holiday goods sold online.
The hospice will celebrate with a “Festival at Home” video debuting at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 21, on its new website, festivaloftreesde.org. It will link patrons to an online contest to choose the favorite tree of the year, and an ETSY shop where people can buy wreaths, decor and more usually sold in the event’s marketplace.
Making the decision to change a winning formula that’s become a holiday tradition for many was “awful,” said Rayna Gray, spokeswoman for Delaware Hospice.
“We couldn’t not do it,” she said. “This is our 33rd year of doing the festival events, and we couldn’t let the year go by without celebrating and remembering.”
While the festival is a feast for the eyes when it’s all set up together like it was at last year’s event at Brantwyn Estate, it’s also got a serious purpose: Remembering those who died in the care of the hospice.
And it’s the hospice’s biggest fundraiser, usually netting from $60,000 to $80,000, which the health care company plows back into programs for its clients and their families. They include bereavement programs, a children’s camp and more.
New Castle County’s celebration will take place now through the end of the year, with Dover’s and Milford’s taking place Dec. 3 to Jan. 3.
Gray said the organization hopes to raise $40,000 to $50,000.
This year, most of New Castle’s 21 trees line a big conference room at the hospice headquarters in Newark. It’s merry with plenty of clever ideas, such as a “Nightmare Before Christmas” tree and a “Frozen” tree, but lacks the customary oomph generated by masses of 50-plus trees like those at Brantwyn last year.
But it didn’t get crushed by COVID.
The hospice felt lucky that so many of its sponsors signed on to underwrite the costs of a tree. Many of the trees are usually donated to specific nonprofits designated by donors, but this year a lot of those charities are not working in their offices because of the novel coronavirus.
A few of the trees are going to specific places, such as the Ministry of Caring, at the behest of a sponsor. Others are for sale online.
Event organizers start planning in February for the year’s festival. That gives designers time to choose their theme and buy or create ornaments, garlands and more to carry it off.
Linda Brennan Jones, who has helped organize Festival of Trees designers for more than 20 years, said finding out the event was going to be so different this year was disappointing, but she was glad they didn’t want to just skip it.
“I am tickled that they persisted and they found a way to do it,” she said.
It was bittersweet this month when some people finally were allowed to gather under strict protocols to decorate the trees, partly because so many of the usuals could not participate.
In 2020, garden clubs, quilters and others who usually met during the year to plan and work on their trees were not meeting, Brennan Jones said.
She was delighted, however, to have the Delaware Woodworkers Guild show up with ornaments for their tree. All of the ornaments, including some clever, delicate open spiral designs, are handmade. The guild was able to participate, she said, because its members usually work alone in their own shops.
She worked on two trees up this year: “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and a tree with stiff crocheted angels contrasting with red and white embroidered pillows.
Brennan Jones starts haunting Christmas sales each season to buy groups of ornaments she thinks she can work with. She never pays more than 50 percent of the cost of an ornament and trimmings.
A favorite haunt used to Kmart, which has closed its doors.
“Now that there’s no Kmart, I’ve been kind of fretting,” she said. “I used to go every couple of days while they were marking them down until I got to 80 percent off, and then I’d buy everything I could see.”
She found the first ornaments for her “Nightmare Before Christmas” tree last year at Walgreens, knocked down to $1.99 each. She’s never seen the movie, but thought it could be a fun tree.
Then last month, she stalked a Hallmark shop until its “Nightmare Before Christmas” stuffed character pieces went on sale for 50 percent off the day after Halloween.
Brennan Jones, who created the tree with friends Pat Bristow and Darla Groves, started getting cold feet as designing time grew near, and kept asking friends if they thought it would be appropriate. Even though every single person told her it would be, “I finally thought maybe I ought to sit down and watch that movie,” she said.
She thinks she spends between $150 and $200 on each tree, because she shops for sales.
But this year’s Disney Tree — created by a book club in memory of their longtime member and ChristianaCare ER nurse Sue Palmer — probably has $500 worth of ornaments on it, Brennan Jones said, because they were mostly bought at retail price. Palmer’s husband and their children were allowed to come see the tree briefly because it won’t be displayed in public.
Brennan Jones has a stash of ornaments that she said gives her the basis for trees for two more years, including a beautiful snowman tree topper.
Decorators came in shifts and worked in different areas, Gray said, to get their work done without violating any state guidelines.
“We were able to have groups come in at the same time, but not in the same location,” she said. “One group would be in the stairwell while another was here in the conference room.” They all wore masks.
One of the event’s signature trees is the Remembrance Tree, covered in ornaments bought by families who want to remember a loved one.
Delaware Hospice sells the ornaments as fundraisers. This year’s choices were a peaceful angel ($30), a modern metal spiral tree that’s hollow ($50) and an ivory-colored angel with crystal embellisments ($100). All the ornaments are displayed on the tree with a tag that says who is being honored, and then later mailed to the families.
Few people will get to see the trees in person this year. Brennan Jones said she’s seen them all except the last two. The Delaware Hospice was not allowing visitors, but now has decided to send staff home to work because of the uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Delaware.
Like every other group forced to change a longtime event, Gray said, “We really hoping that next year everybody can come back.”