When Cindy Friend decorates a Christmas tree, she tends to shy away from traditional ornaments and garland. She thinks big and envisions something completely unique. After all, more than 22,000 people will see it.
Friend is one of the many designers who lend creativity and talent to the Embassy Theatre’s annual Festival of Trees. She enjoys it so much, she’s played a part in the spectacular displays for 25 years.
“Every year I look forward to it and every year I think about how I’m going to top last year,” Friend said. “I always strive to do that. I also have a team of helpers and they’re very creative.”
The Festival of Trees is steeped in tradition. It dates back to 1984, when a group of volunteers was trying to raise money for badly needed renovations at the theater.
“This was one of the early fundraisers that they created and it just really took hold,” explained John Hughey, Embassy Theatre Marketing Director. “People fell in love with the idea of seeing the theater decorated, and we’ve continued every year now for 34 years.”
This year’s festival has a White Christmas theme and runs November 21-28. Adult admission is $8, children ages 4-12 are $4, and children under 3 get in free but must have a ticket. This year, 65 trees will line the lobby and mezzanine — 10 more than last year. Most of the trees are sponsored by local businesses. Some come up with their own designs; others are partnered with decorators like Cindy Friend.
“Most of the time, it’s my ideas and creations, and I usually start out with some type of theme or style and then get inspired from there,” Friend said. “For example, last year the sponsor of the tree was Shambaugh & Son and they’re a mechanical engineering company, so the inspiration came from all of the things they provide to their customers. I was able to collaborate with them and transform their materials into a holiday experience on the tree.”
Of the more than two dozen trees she’s decorated for this event, it’s hard to pick a favorite. They all stand out for different reasons.
“There was one I did years ago for Home Lumber,” Friend recalled. “I had a toolbox, I had hammers, I had screwdrivers and levels and tape measures, and it stands out to me as one of those that was so quirky and unique and it worked. It was super fun. That’s just one of them that I remember.”
Another had a special connection to her own family.
“I did a stage tree and had kids from my daughter’s dance studio decorate one of their older tap shoes or a ballet shoe, and then I applied that to the tree and then they were able to see their shoe when they danced at the festival. That was so fun and all the dancers really enjoyed being a part of it. Seeing their creation on the tree, that made it really special.”
Those performances are an important part of the Festival of Trees. Each year, more than 40 local acts get the chance to entertain the crowds. Some are vocalists. Others are dancers. There are also performances featuring the Grand Page pipe organ.
“This is just a great opportunity to take a moment out of the season and bring your family,” Hughey said. “We see multiple generations come for a visit, and while they’re here, many take photos of their entire family,
Hughey says he’s especially excited to see the trees that will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Blizzard of ’78. He and Friend agree that the festival is the perfect place to get ideas for your own tree at home.
“Pick something that your family loves,” Friend said. “Maybe it’s traveling, football, dancing, hockey, collecting art, whatever it is. Then look for things you have around your home that you could incorporate into the tree that gives it that personal message. Use things you already have. Old jeans, cut those into stars or shapes. Old sweaters. Old scarves. Tie those together and use as garland. You’d be shocked at what you can do with things that you have already or were going to throw away. Start small. Don’t overwhelm yourself with the Pinterest vision. Start small and just incorporate something.”