Reminisce: 50 years of Christmas Tree Festival

It started as a way to bring Lima together in the turbulent year of 1973. Now it’s an annual holiday tradition that generations of residents couldn’t imagine living without.

The 50th annual Christmas Tree Festival kicks off Wednesday and runs through Sunday at the Allen County Museum. And while it’s a mainstay in Lima now, it wasn’t originally planned that way.

“When we started it, we thought we should do it for just one year,” Helen Mack, the woman who came up with the idea for the Christmas Tree Festival, told The Lima News in 1990. “At the end of the festival we said we can’t stop. There was just no question about it.”

It was a time of racial unrest and a lack of unity in Lima back in 1972. Mack’s daughter, Susan, introduced her to the idea after attending a for-profit tree show in Omaha, Neb., Mack told The Lima News in 1977.

“In 1973, tensions were pretty high in Lima, and the Church Women United wanted to do something to bring the community together,” Mack told The Lima News in 1992. “So I introduced the idea of a Christmas Tree Festival.”

It was an instant success. Working alongside the YWCA and the Allen County Historical Society, the first festival in 1973 featured 53 trees and drew 10,000 people. By 1976, it drew 22,000 people and had 120 decorated trees. The trees are decorated by area organizations, often following different themes.

“Trees come in all shapes and sizes – trees decorated with ice cream cones, trees with candles, trees with miniature chalk boards, trees with sand dollars,” The Lima News wrote in 1989, when the event neared its peak with 140 local organizations sharing trees.

Some organizations became well-known for the trees they shared. The Salvation Army had a tradition of building a tree using donated dolls, which were later given out as presents, The Lima News reported in 1991. There was also a “greeting tree” at the entry, where anyone could add a greeting card to the tree.

Another part of the annual tradition from the very beginning was “Evergreen, the Talking Tree,” which talks with children from its spot in the general store inside the Allen County Museum.

Over the years, the event expanded beyond the original museum’s limited space into the nearby log cabin and MacDonell House, former museum director Pat Smith told The Lima News in 2007.

“When people visit, they see that humble log cabin and what it would have been like for their ancestors to experience a holiday that was nothing like what it turned into,” Smith said. “Next door (at the MacDonell House), they’ll see how the area changed, how there were beautiful Victorian homes. It’s decorated so nicely. People ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at it.”

This year’s event promises more than 100 trees by individuals, organizations and community groups. It now includes a new tradition of taking photos with Santa and a “Polar Express” story reading. The Allen County Museum, Johnny Appleseed Metropolitan Park District and Allen County Master Gardener Volunteers serve as the event’s sponsors.

This year’s hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday at the Allen County Museum, 620 W. Market St., Lima.

“We are so happy to be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Christmas Tree Festival,” Allen County Museum Director Amy Craft Klassen said in a press release this year. “It’s really incredible this event has been going on for so long. It is a tradition the community knows and loves. And, while some things have certainly changed with time, we know the community enjoys viewing the trees and participating in activities they have come to love and associate with this event.”

In the 1970s, children also had the opportunity to buy Christmas presents for loved ones at the event. The modern equivalent of that is the Little Children’s Shoppe.

“The children’s gift shop contains items the children can buy for family and friends for Christmas,” The Lima News wrote in 1977. “Only children will be allowed entrance and some of the gifts can be personalized.”

The demand stunned organizers, Mack said in 1991.

“We had a children’s gift shop so children could get gifts for their families,” Mack said. “We kept running out of gifts and had to close the shop. We’d have to scurry around and find gifts so we could open the next day.”

The event ran for up to 10 days in the 1970s and 1980s before adopting its current five-day format in the 2000s. In the early years, it also included a daily homemade lunch available for sale.

Organizers reported they’d end the annual event in 2001 after the September death of Mack, but the event has continued on to this day.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the love people feel for the annual event.

“I don’t know of anything I’ve worked with that I enjoy more,” Mack told The Lima News on Nov. 15, 1977. “Everyone from little children to old people enjoys it.”

SOURCE

This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.

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See past Reminisce stories at limaohio.com/tag/reminisce

Reach David Trinko at [email protected]