Small trees, tall trees — dozens of them, resplendent in holiday light and ornamentation — transform the halls of Huntingtown High School into a forested Christmas wonderland.
These trees decked in holiday finery aren’t delivered to the high school in Santa’s sleigh. Instead, they are the work of hundreds of volunteers who labor for weeks, months — some all year — to create a Festival of Trees for the sake of Calvert Hospice.
“I don’t have money to contribute,” says Mitzi Poole of Prince Frederick. “So my donation is this, and it gives me great pleasure.”
For 17 years, Mitzi Poole has created a handcrafted, themed tree for a sponsor. Her theme for this year’s tree is Under the Sea Fantasy.
With the help of friends, including Van Ireland and Judy Camero, Poole has for 17 years created a handcrafted, themed tree for a sponsor whose contribution is money.
Two years ago, Poole’s design was a re-creation of the Broadway musical Cats. Last year she honored Native American heritage with guidance from Calvert countian and native American Bob Gajdys.
For this year’s tree, Under the Sea Fantasy, Poole has been creating — and sweating over — ornaments for the last 12 months. The tree’s sponsors, Abbey and Patrick Griffin of Scientist Cliffs, know they are not getting a traditional Christmas tree. Instead they are getting a seven-and-a-half-foot work of art for which they’ll pay $800.
A naturalist and artist, Poole spent hours studying images of sea creatures to make her ornaments faithful representations. The result is a wondrous collection of starfish, sea horses, sea anemones, angelfish, sea bass, humpback whales, sharks and sea turtles formed in paper mache.
The sharks’ teeth look sharp, and they are, as they are meticulously placed tiny thorns stripped from garden roses and wild briars.
“The sea bass are still not perfect,” Poole says. “But I had to let it go. I’m running out of time.”
Discarded plastic bags have been transformed into iridescent jellyfish with long tentacles to float among the branches.
“I have sea turtles,” Poole says. “So I had to have jellyfish for the sea turtles to eat.”
One of those turtles, about a foot long, took Poole three weeks of 10-hour days to perfect. Even at close inspection, the shell looks as if it had been found on a shore. The folds of the turtle’s neck are too realistic for paper mache.
Hours before her tree will be assembled, Poole is playing with small glass balls of descending sizes, stringing them together to mimic bubbles of air floating to the surface. The tree’s crown will be a delicate mermaid draped atop a barnacled reef, her head encircled by a tiara of tiny seashells collected by a friend.
This year’s tree is still a work in progress, but Poole is already thinking ahead to next year. She’s dreaming of recreating a classic merry-go-round. She’ll have just over 12 months. She’d better get busy.
It’s in large part because of trees like Poole’s that Calvert Hospice flourishes. The average year’s Festival of Trees raises $100,000 to provide end-of-life support.
Roll Out the Trees
On the day before Thanksgiving, a truckload of unassembled trees arrives at Huntingtown High School. Delivery comes courtesy of Sneade’s Ace Hardware, which also provides Hospice with the pre-lit, artificial trees at “a very nice reduced price,” says Jeanne Coonan, former volunteer coordinator and current volunteer.
Sneade’s delivers — and community teens unload — more than 70 boxed artificial trees on Thanksgiving eve.
Sponsors have a choice of three sizes and prices: a four-and-a-half-foot tree costs $500; a six-and-a-half-foot tree, $700; and a seven-and-a-half-foot tree, $800. Some simply buy and donate a tree for decoration; others decorate and keep them.
At the school, Calvert teens earning their community service credits unload the boxes.
On Black Friday, just as the sun rises, 80 or so hardy volunteers arrive at the high school to assemble the trees for the decorators as the countdown begins.
Mitzi Poole and her team are there to unite her sea creatures with their tree.
Family and friends of Kevin Lacombe are there, too.
Lacombe, a Calvert County native, is deployed in Afghanistan. His family has come from Tennessee, Virginia and Calvert to decorate a tree for his platoon. They’ve named it For Those Who Truly Shine.
The Lacombe family “is going to videotape the whole shebang and send the tape to Kevin in Afghanistan for Christmas,” says Sherry Scott, chair of tree decorators.
The Monday after Thanksgiving, For Those Who Truly Shine will reside at the offices of Discount Realty, its sponsor.
The beer trucks roll out to deliver For Those Who Truly Shine, Under the Seas Fantasy and the other six-dozen trees to their holiday location.
Delivering the trees is part of beverage distributor Bob Hall’s holiday tradition.
“We’ve been doing this for probably 20 years now,” says Mike Hudson, operations manager of Bob Hall LLC. “One of our drivers, Jack Smack, lives in Calvert and he got us involved way back when. He’s retired now, but he still pitches in on delivery day.”
This year it will take three of the distributor’s beer trucks and drivers to deliver all the hospice trees. Trees are delivered to the courthouse, community centers, businesses and residences.
Scalped Salon in Prince Frederick is the destination for one of the seven-and-half footers.
“I’ve been sponsoring a tree for years now,” says salon owner Margaret Thompson, who hands over decorating chores to the Chesapeake Garden Club.
“They are very creative women,” says Thompson. “I’m happy to let them do their thing.”
When that tree arrives in Thompson’s salon, it gets another round of decorations.
Thompson asks Calvert social services to identify needy Calvert families whose children aren’t likely to have the resources for much of a Christmas. Each child’s name and needs are written on an angel hung on the hospice tree. Over three weeks, salon customers pick an angel and play secret Santa.
“Our customers are amazing,” Thompson reports. “There is never an angel left.”
Customers at Scalped Salon choose the name of a child in need and play secret Santa for that boy or girl.
The gifts pile up under the tree until December 23, when Thompson fills her truck and delivers the gaily wrapped presents well into the night.
“The tree has two different meanings for me,” Thompson says. “It’s all about giving to my community. First to hospice, then to people in my community who are struggling. For one brief moment, life is perfect.”
One last trees can be yours. The Shop Calvert First Tree, decorated with gift certificates donated by Calvert County businesses, will be raffled on Sunday, Nov, 27. The winning ticket holder gets not only a Christmas tree but also a shopping spree.