Humorist Erma Bombeck once joked, "There's nothing sadder in this world than to awake Christmas morning and not be a child."
Yet Kiersten Finchum, 48, is as wide-eyed and joyful as any 5-year-old on that special morn. As co-chair of the 32nd annual Festival of Trees, a three-day charitable event that benefits individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, she's been looking forward to this harbinger of the holiday season for a long time.
"I can't wait for the setup week to come," said Finchum last week. "One of my biggest joys is watching the decorators come in (to the Long Center gym) with their boxes full of ornaments, props and lights and unfurl their own special Christmas magic."
The festival, which showcases a veritable man- and woman-made forest of decorated trees for sale, is sponsored by AmeriLife and hosted by the Arc Tampa Bay Foundation, formerly known as UPARC. Finchum and her husband, Travis, a lawyer who specializes in special-needs trusts, became involved with the Arc after their daughter Lillian, 12, was born with Down syndrome. This is her third year as co-chair.
The theme for this year's event is "Once Upon a Christmas," and hundreds of decorators — artists, business owners, community leaders and city governments — have come together to create trees with names such as Seas-N-Greetings, Oz I Want for Christmas, and Polar Express.
Twas the Night Before Christmas is the name of the 10-foot feature tree that retells the classic story of the same name. Created by employees at AmeriLife, the tree boasts handcrafted ornaments created by associates. Visitors will see mice snuggled in bed, stockings hung with care and a letter to Santa complete with milk and cookies. The tree is crowned with a sparkling moon vignette as Santa and his reindeer soar through the night sky.
Those looking for the "real St. Nick" will find him arriving Saturday at 10 a.m. via the Jolley Trolley. This year will feature a special walk-through Santa castle created by co-chair Brett McMullen, so bring your camera or cellphone to get some Santa selfies with you and the kiddos.
If you miss his big arrival, Santa will be making appearances all three days.
The Children's Village will feature face painting, arts and crafts and story time. At the helm, will be Isabelle Shadrick who created the village for her Sea Scouts Ship 915 Quartermaster Award project.
Friday is the Festival of Trees Premiere Night from 7 to 11 p.m. Tickets are $75 and include an array of dining options from top notch restaurants, music by Erica DiCeglie, dancing, auctions and holiday tree shopping.
"This is the perfect kickoff to the holiday season," said Madison Orr Hauenstein, executive director of the Arc Tampa Bay Foundation. "It brings the community together for the common cause of creating awareness and support for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities."