The first Fairfield Christmas Tree Festival, held in 1981, was so small that a handful of volunteers removed decorative pillows and other items from their own homes to use as props as they decorated the rooms of the historic Burr Homestead.
Nearly three decades later, it takes about 200 volunteers -- about a quarter of whom work year-round -- to come up with the design concepts, make all the decorated Christmas trees, wreaths, garland and sprays, and dress up the historic home with help from professional designers, allowing them to leave their own home décor intact.
"It evolved from one place to a completely different place," said Kristin Nick, president of the Fairfield Christmas Tree Festival Committee, which opens its 29th annual festival tonight with a formal reception, and is open to the public through Sunday. The event features the designer-decorated rooms, live music, custom-made live wreaths, photos with Santa, trees and wreaths for sale, a holiday boutique, and the raffling of a handmade quilt by award-winning quilt-maker Cecily Zerega, one of the founding organizers of the first festival.
There will also be a number of special features including a children's event on Friday night from 5 to 7 p.m., a traditional Victorian tea Saturday at noon, and new this year is a wine tasting combined with a designer showcase. "People can ask designers for decorating tips," Nick said. That event is set for Saturday evening.
"The creativity is amazing," said Carol Wheeler, one of the founding organizers of the festival. Wheeler said she never envisioned it would continue for so long, grow in such esteem and raise as much money for local charitable organizations. The Fairfield Christmas Tree Festival typically has raised about $150,000 to $200,000 in more recent years. In its history, the event has raised more than $3 million, Nick said, adding that 100 percent of the net proceeds are donated to the designated non-profit.
The 2009 recipient was Operation Hope, the Burroughs Community Center in Bridgeport is this year's beneficiary, and St. Vincent's Special Needs Center has already been selected for next year. Burroughs offers a variety of programs for at-risk youth in the region. "It's an important, amazing place," said Debbie Stapleton, a member of the Burroughs Community Center board of directors and this year's Fairfield Christmas Tree Festival co-chairman.
The more than 3,000 people expected to go through the homestead throughout the four-day festival will see mantelpieces, tables and wall space laden with sophisticated decorations, much of which they can purchase to transform their homes into a holiday showcase. The splendor of the transformation even takes away the breath of volunteers.
"Each day you walk in and say, `wow.' It's fun to come in and see what's happened," added Stapleton.
Nick said the charity designated to benefit from the event each year provides half the manpower. Stapleton said her group began working on this year's festival 18 months ago, setting the theme, "Celebrating Community."
The cadre of volunteers worked nearly around the clock this week preparing for the festival. Throughout the house decorators stood on ladders putting the finishing touches on their creations. Downstairs, about a half dozen volunteers made and decorated live wreaths. Throughout the festival they will make more -- some of them custom designs per the special request of a shopper, others in a general festive holiday theme.
Upstairs, Sue Pinzon of Fairfield and Victoria Ross of Westport were busy creating a fantasy children's room on the second floor using non-traditional Christmas colors for their brightly-colored, multi-themed display that includes a ballet corner, sailing concept, cupcakes and the North Pole.
This is their fourth year as participating designers in the festival. "We start conceptualizing for next year right after it ends," Pinzon said. They start working in earnest about March to make all the decorations for their room. "There are some months when you don't do much and other months where you're working 10-hour days," she said.
The event outgrew the homestead several years back, prompting organizers to extend the square footage of the homestead by adding two tents; one at the entrance of the homestead and a cavernous one in the back for special event programming throughout the festival, such as the gala, the wine tasting, Victorian tea and the children's event.
Jessica Wheeler, one of the chairs of the latter event, said they encourage people to bring new or gently-used children's mittens, which will be distributed to the children at the Burroughs Community Center. The children's event will feature a meal, a magic show by Mr. Abracadabra, arts and crafts, and other child-friendly activities. "We do as much as we can in two hours to kick off Christmas," Wheeler said. It will conclude on time for families to attend the town's Christmas tree lighting ceremony at which and Santa Claus will arrive in a fire truck, she said.
This year's Fairfield Christmas Tree Festival will be open to the public on Friday, from 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Saturday, from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
General admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children and senior citizens. For more information, visit www.FairfieldChristmasTreeFestival.org. For more information on the Burroughs Community Center, visit www.BurroughsCC.org.