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Festival of Trees adapts to pandemic

The tree with the fake twenty dollar bills (so nobody can pluck one off) was getting the most attention from raffle participants.

By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter

The Festival of Trees at the Gardens at Elm Bank looks a little bit different this year. What was always a drop-in-and-take-a-look event has turned into a strictly enforced tour, where groups have about twenty minutes (per room) to look at both the train room and the two rooms full of Christmas trees. Obviously, this change came about due to COVID-19 and the need to enforce social distancing protocols.

Gretel Anspach, one of the four committee members who run the show and a trustee of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, noted all the safety protocols they have put into place.

“The big difference this year are the precautions we are taking to keep people safe. Last year, people could come when they wanted, stay as long as they wanted, and wander wherever they wanted, and it was fine - we just can’t afford to do that this year. So what we’re doing this year is we’re dividing groups into no more than 24 people, and we’re escorting them through the show in a path where they’re not going to run into another group of people, to minimize human contact that way. We’re also making sure there are no more than 24 people in a room at a time, and increasing the air circulations in the room by leaving at least one door open.”

Having a personal tour guide also allowed festival-goers to get any question asked immediately.

While these changes have limited the amount of socializing people can do during the event, it does come with its advantages. The most obvious is that you can get a much better look at both Bill Meagher’s train setup and the trees themselves. When the event was a free-for-all, the room could often get so crowded you would feel uncomfortable stopping the line to look at a tree - or more often, a part of the train village. As a member of a small group given twenty minutes alone, it feels like a private showing, and you can easily pick up on subtle details you wouldn’t notice last year, when you were trying not to slow the line too much.

The tour system allowed much more time to examine the trains, since there was no line to push you along.

“The village and trains are up and running," Bill Meagher noted, "but because of COVID, for the first time, no significant renovations were made.” Given that Meagher changes something for every festival, it's a noted departure from the norm.

While Meagher couldn’t do any large renovations for the first time, it’s hard to think anyone could be disappointed with his train village.

As for the trees, Dover is well represented. “Winner Takes All,” a scratch-ticket-filled Christmas tree, was labelled as being from Dover. Both “Santa’s Elves” and “Money Does Grow on Trees” come from local gardening clubs. “Cars for Christmas,” meanwhile, was crafted by a Dover resident. In fact, when pressed on which of the 63 trees are doing well in the raffle (the trees are raffled off, with attendees buying raffle tickets and placing them in a bin in front of the trees they would like) Gretel named some of Dover’s entries.

“The one that appears to have twenty dollar bills on it has the most tickets. It’s very eye-catching and it’s worth about two hundred seventy five dollars - not because of the twenty dollar bills, but because of the attached gift certificates. That’s absolutely leading the fray. The next two would be the tree with one hundred dollars worth of scratch tickets, and the one with the bicycle and hover-board. Loot trees.”

To accommodate the small tour groups, the festival expanded its hours. While it used to be open for three weekends, it is now running for four, while the Garden has also expanded its night hours. Still, for those who don’t feel safe leaving the house, there is a virtual option.

“The other thing we’ve introduced this year is an online raffle for those who … don’t feel safe coming. They can see most of the show without leaving their home, and even participate in the raffle if they want to.”

On the way out, everyone had a chance to make a socially-distanced s'more at the fire pit.

Everyone on the tour got a s'more making kit they were allowed to use at a fire pit on their way out, as well as a cup of hot chocolate as they waited outside for the rest of their tour group to arrive.

While Covid has turned many events into watered-down versions of themselves, from fan-less football games to virtual concerts, the Festival of Trees did not suffer the same fate. While it wasn't the Festival of Trees people were used to, getting what felt like a VIP tour with no lines, plenty of time to look, and a personal guide to answer your questions may have actually been better.

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