When it came to holiday traditions, the annual Festival of Trees was hard to beat.

Let’s start with the raw numbers. It took a village to pull off. More than 100 individuals helmed the all-volunteer committee. When the previous year’s event ended, they started working on the next year. Even though it lasted just nine days in December, it required 365 days of planning.

Kennedy, Thornton rgb

Thornton Kennedy

The actual physical labor started in November, when thousands of volunteers descended on the Georgia World Congress Center in downtown Atlanta, transforming 150,000 square feet of the drab, multi-use convention space into a winter wonderland. The centerpiece was the trees, hundreds of them, stretching to the far corners of the room in every direction.

Some of the most talented and inspired designers from around the region decorated the trees. From major corporations to startups, the icons of Atlanta, service clubs and nonprofits, all joined together to sponsor them.

One team festooned the Coca-Cola Co.-sponsored tree with hundreds of tiny glass Coke bottles. Orange aprons hung from the Home Depot tree. Brown packages dangled from the UPS tree. Plastic pilot’s wings adorned the tree sponsored by Delta Air Lines.

Not all of the trees had corporate tie-ins, though. Some were simply beautifully done, inspiring works by creative people who loved Christmas. Volunteers and children decorated some, which were always among the favorites. There was messiness to them, an authenticity that stood out among the more pristine trees.

It wasn’t just all fun and games, though. It was a competition, with the committee singling out the best-designed trees.

The festival also had carnival rides for the children — a small train in an oval and a winter-themed indoor roller coaster. There was a place for building gingerbread houses with every conceivable accompaniment, from icing to gum drops to candy canes. A model train whistled through snowy capped mountains and tiny illuminated villages. An artists’ market presented unique gifts.

We still have several ornaments from the market, with our children’s names beautifully written on them. These are keepsakes they will hopefully have forever.

The Festival of Trees was Christmas come to life, and all the proceeds raised benefitted Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

It was the ultimate win-win.

The Christmas Parade, which Children’s still holds to this day, kicked off the festival. Usually held the first weekend in December, this year’s event was planned for this last Sunday. As with everything in 2020, it was less an actual parade and more a virtual look back on 40 years of previous parades.

Santa Claus was the highlight, arriving last and delighting the children and their parents along the route through midtown and downtown Atlanta. Of course, Santa would come to the Festival of Trees, heralding the opening.

By my internet sleuthing, it seems volunteers from Egleston Hospital organized the first Festival of Trees in 1976. It made more than a 30-year run. In 2007, the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead hosted a smaller version, and from there it seems to have dissipated, at least from the largess of the Georgia World Congress Center.

For a generation of Atlantans and Georgians, it served as the unofficial kickoff of the Christmas season, especially the opening-night party, which drew the corporate sponsors, the civic organizations, the nonprofits and all of the volunteers for an evening of good cheer among the trees.

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Buckhead resident Thornton Kennedy is the president of PR South and a former news editor of this paper. He can be reached at thornton@prsouth.net.


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