CEDAR FALLS — From white cocoa mugs stamped with gold “PE” monograms and the train snaking around the tree base, it’s a pretty sure thing onlookers will be looking for the “first gift of Christmas” among packages beneath the tree celebrating the children’s classic “The Polar Express.”
“What’s more magical than the Polar Express?” asked Michelle Visokey of Cedar Falls, who decorated the Christmas tree for the Sartori Foundation with her daughters, Laura and Molly.
It is one of 30 trees decorated primarily by volunteers for the 29th annual Festival of Trees.
This year’s theme is “The Magic of Christmas.” Presented by Sartori Memorial Hospital, the holiday event officially opens Wednesday and runs through Sunday at the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center on the University of Northern Iowa campus.
Gallery hours are noon to 8 p.m. Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday (closed from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for a private event); 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
There also will be 15 wreaths and 16 table settings on display.
The opening Festival at Night takes place from 5 to 7:30 p.m. tonight at the GBPAC. Admission is $20 at the door.
This is the fifth tree the Visokeys have decorated in the past few years. It’s an activity Laura described as “fun,” although Molly admits she was out-voted on her choice of tree theme. “I wanted it to be the Nutcracker,” she said, because the Minnesota Ballet will present the seasonal favorite in performances Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the Great Hall.
“We knew what the theme would be at the end of last year’s festival. I’ve been thinking about it all year and gathering things along the way. We’ve been texting back and forth when we see things we think we should get,” said Michelle. Her husband, Dr. David Visokey, is a pulmonologist for Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare.
Elegant red and gold decorations adorned a tall tree decorated by members from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The core group of decorators has participated for the past 15 years, although there are a few relatively new members. “We work as a team, and each person is assigned a job. It’s done with love,” said Melanie Hawkins of Cedar Falls.
“It’s a tradition for us,” explained Jennifer Gillins, also of Cedar Falls. The group gathered earlier this fall to make gold stars and letter ornaments with phrases like “One Star,” “One Christ” and “One Night” for their “Believe in the Magic of Christmas” theme.
“This comes at a good time of year. I love that it’s at the beginning of the season before Thanksgiving and all the craziness of the holidays,” added Deborah Bunker of Cedar Falls.
Annette Ebaugh of Cedar Falls decorated a white tree with a pink theme in honor of her daughter, Christina Sterling, who has battled breast cancer.
This is Ebaugh’s first year to participate in the festival. Her collection of “Royal Rose” tea cups, demitasse cups and family heirloom teapot are displayed, along with bright pink ornaments and flowers.
“I’m vice president of the Denver Garden Club, that’s why the flowers. I love to decorate — I have 12 themed trees in my house, and this pink and white tree will go in my dining room after the festival,” she said.
Trees will be judged tonight and ribbons awarded in professional and amateur categories. The public can vote on the people’s choice award. Several 4- to 7 1/2-foot trees will be available for purchase or bid by silent auction. The trees then will be delivered to the purchaser’s home or business.
While tree decorators worked, Linda Wessels and her crew from the hospital gift shop were busily arranging displays at the Festival Marketplace Gift Shoppe.
Approximately 52 boxes were opened and unpacked by volunteers Monday morning. It takes Wessels and her helpers about eight hours to unpack boxes and create vignettes that range from Christmas and winter decorating items and home accessories to pretty gloves and ruana wraps.
Sales are always brisk. “After the festival closed last year, it only took an hour to pack everything up that was left,” she added.
The marketplace is open during gallery hours.
Log onto www.wheatoniowa.org/festival for more information on events.