INNISFAIL – Pat Newman carefully browsed through the array of 24 beautifully decorated Christmas trees in awe.
The town’s former chief magistrate and first female mayor was accompanied by Jean Barclay, now the second woman to hold the town’s highest office. Newman was overjoyed with the spectacular light display at the Innisfail Library/Learning Centre, which is the setting for the community’s inaugural Innisfail Festival of Trees.
“I absolutely love it. In years past we used to have some type of Christmas celebrations but that fell by the wayside. This has been resurrected with a bang,” said the enthusiastic 88-year-old former mayor who led the town in the late 1980s and again in the mid-1990s. “We needed this to come together and to appreciate what we have. It gave me the Christmas spirit.”
The Innisfail Festival of Trees opened on Nov. 19, and runs until Dec. 12. The opening was held the same day as the Countdown to Christmas, which featured a free Christmas-themed drive-in festival in the north parking lot of the Innisfail Royal Canadian Legion from 5 to 7 p.m. It was followed by the official lighting of the Community Christmas Tree.
“It was a great success, and great to see the community come alive,” said Barclay, who volunteered at the drive-in festival and later pulled the switch to light up the Community Christmas Tree near the cenotaph.
She added the community tree lighting began two years ago but attendance was limited in 2020 due to COVID restrictions. However, this year there was at least 300 citizens who attended both the drive-in festival and tree lighting.
“This is amazing. We’ve had a lot of people show up who weren’t even registered,” said Karen Bradbury, the town's community and social development coordinator who led the Countdown to Christmas. She noted the drive-in festival offered free pizza, candies, resource bags, bottled water, and games to play inside every vehicle. Later, she added, hot chocolate and cookies were available for folks preparing for the tree lighting.
“This brings people together and we’re doing it safely,” said Bradbury, whose inspiration for the event came from her home town in Deer Lake, N.L. “I thought, ‘well, maybe this will work right here.' We thought this would be a great pairing with the tree lighting.”
While the two events for the Countdown to Christmas was just for one night, the dazzling Festival of Trees with its two dozen entries - decorated by local businesses, organizations, families, and individuals - is running until Dec.12.
The multi-partner event was created to rally the community to raise funds to help the less fortunate during the holiday season, including through the Santa’s Wish List, an initiative for citizens to support local families by purchasing a special present for children.
When local businessman Dale Dunham created the idea for the Festival of Trees, he envisioned getting enough support to have 15 displayed. Instead, the final tally was way beyond expectations and with overwhelming positive public feedback.
“We actually got to 25 trees and we had to cut it off. We had to respond to other organizations that we couldn’t take any more,” said Dunham, noting one of the tree entries had to opt out but money was then donated to the event.
“I couldn’t be happier. The entire team that came together, including the committee as well as all the volunteers who put all the decorations together and helped organize it. It’s just phenomenal.
“We’ve had nothing but people thanking us for this, and being excited about coming back a second time, and the years to come."
Plans are underway for a special two-hour closing festival party in partnership with the town and Joy’s School of Dance," said Dunham.
“We are laying the groundwork for a really great annual community event," said Dunham.