For 51 weeks of the year, the Shaw Conference Centre looks like a functional, but sterile concrete and glass tiered structure. But on the last week of every November, volunteer magicians wave their wands and transform the cavernous rooms into a glittery northern fairyland.
The 30th annual Festival of Trees, Edmonton’s kickoff to the holiday season, is already underway and goes until Sunday, Nov. 30. It is an enchanting visual feast of about 145 stunningly decorated Christmas trees, ornaments, wreaths, and gingerbread castles.
This year’s theme is Let It Snow, and in celebration of its three decades on the beat, festival organizers have also imported a massive see-through plastic snow globe as tall as a one-storey house.
“We brought in a life-size snow globe and you can walk right into it and have your picture taken for $5. But we really encourage people to have fun with it,” said festival chair Donna Zazulak.
The conference centre’s lobby is the entrance to this magical winterscape. Every visitor must walk through a rounded archway and past an icy Snowman Village. Each snowman, is a one-of-a-kind version of Olaf, the popular goofball from the Disney movie Frozen.
“They’re very playful. There’s even a baby snowman in a stroller with its mother.”
The actual forest of trees is a spellbinding sight with thousands upon thousands of twinkling lights, miles of ribbon and a kaleidoscope of ornamentation.
At a quick glance, the festival is a vast, fantastical confection straight from the imagination of a child. However, underneath the froth, the festival has a serious side.
Each year the University of Alberta Hospital Foundation creates this extravaganza to raise funds for medical equipment. Since the first festival in 1985 at the University Hospital displaying 15 trees, it has raised $16.5 million.
Each year the foundation generates about $1 million from the festival and targets it to a specific medical cause from trauma to transplant equipment.
This year, the foundation is purchasing a Gamma Knife, a non-invasive technology that allows surgeons to perform delicate brain procedures without creating an incision.
“Using low dose beams of radiation as virtual scalpel, the Gamma Knife eliminates incisions, reduces infection risks and shortens recovery time from three months to two days,” stated Nicole Merrifield, communications advisor for the University Hospital Foundation.
At the moment, patients requiring Gamma Knife treatment must currently fly to the brain centre in Winnipeg. Having a unit in Edmonton would bring hope to 350 patients every year.
“The Gamma Knife at the University Hospital will be the first in Alberta to offer this care and it will be built as part of a brain imaging and treatment unit.”
Merrifield added that the foundation is committed to helping raise $35 million to build Phase 2 of the brain imaging and treatment unit where the Gamma Knife will be housed.
And it is easy to make a generous donation when surrounded by sparkling beauty and artistic grace.
While three decades ago, most trees were a traditional green radiating the customary vibe of hearth and home, today’s designers pick up edgier trends.
Although green is still a cornerstone colour, the theme Let It Snow has attracted a large numbers of sparkly white trees. And there appear to be more designers using basic materials to build trees such as paper, wood, hemp and plastic.
One tree, that at first glance appears overshadowed by its neighbours, in fact delivers a powerful recycling wallop. The Christmas Tree That Saved the World, contributed by Riddell Kurczaba Architecture, is constructed completely of recycled plastic water bottles.
“There’s a metal pole in the centre, wire rings hold it up and plastic zip ties hold everything in place. They came up with the idea because of all the water bottles we’re sending to the landfill,” said Sandra Dickie, co-chair of the outside designers committee.
For hockey fans, a tree that is receiving its fair share of attention is the Oilers’ Tree. This year the massive seven-foot tree is decorated with handmade ornaments and each one is autographed by a member of the ’84 Team.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind never to be replicated.”
An Oilers’ print accompanies the tree, and it too is signed by Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glen Anderson, Grant Fuhr and Paul Coffey.
Since the festival sports an outdoor theme, many of the trees this year are adorned with wildlife, elves, gnomes, fairies and traditional balls in robust gem colours.
There’s a wine tree with glasses, grapes and bottles; a pop culture tree decked out with anime figures, Wonder Woman and Batman; a time flies tree adorned with watch faces, feathers and silver birds, and finally, a gingerbread looking wood tree.
There are even trees that look like modern art such as a three legged tree made from white PVC pipes cut into circles and glued together. Inside the circles, designers hung tiny ornaments.
“It was inspired by Martha Stewart but hers was a two dimensional design. They (designers) said, ‘let’s make it a three-dimensional design.’ And as you can see, it was painstakingly made.”
Every corner of the hall is furnished with decorated trees, tabletop trees, holiday wreaths, outdoor dĂ©cor and charming one-of-a-kind gingerbread houses and castles.
St. Albert sculptor Lisa Shorten carried home a bronze ribbon for her Brazilian soapstone carvings of four spruce trees. Although Shorten dubbed the carvings Frozen, they appear to be in a blowing wind.
“I was in awe. It’s very difficult to take a block of soapstone and see the movement of an image and how it bends. And I love the variations in colour,” noted Dickie.
In addition to Shorten, there were about half a dozen other designers from St. Albert and Sturgeon County that created a memorable gift for the festival.
Moriganagh McNally, an extremely gifted designer, made her 13th contribution to the festival in the form of two pieces. Let It Neige is a dainty white papier mâché bird studded with feathers, pearls, crystals and satin.
McNally’s second piece is a wreath featuring a photo of Bing Crosby playing golf at Jasper Park Lodge.
“My grandmother took the picture years ago,” said McNally. In addition, she also designed a burlap golf bag complete with golf balls and pine pieces depicting a rustic Christmas theme.
Quilter Sharon Monk dipped into her reservoir of ideas and created a crazy quilt in teals, greens and blues with four loopy Olaf-type toques adding a whimsical touch.
The Sturgeon Youth Council created a Christmas tree topped with a ski chalet and snowboarders boarding down the tree on ribbons. The 144 Bears, Cubs and Venturers created from scratch using simply white paper and glitter whereas Delaine Dew constructed a treehouse-type tree.
For children, festival organizers also operate a playful secret shop, an ice cream parlour, an activity centre, Santa’s corner, and a gingerbread house contest.
Saturday hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information visit festivaloftrees.ca.
Festival of Trees
Runs Saturday, Nov. 29 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 30 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Shaw Conference Centre
Admission: $10/adults; $5/youth; free for infants and children under 12 years.