The Christmas Tree Festival (CTF) in Fakenham Parish Church started in 2001 when in July Rev’d Adrian Bell became Rector. He put the idea to the Church council who keenly supported him.
The first Festival was “switched on” by the Town Mayor on the evening of Thursday 6th December 2001. The Festival ran for three days, Friday & Saturday from 10am to 9pm and Sunday 12noon to 9pm. Actual details of this first Festival are hard to come by – memories have to suffice. Of the number of charities who took part, the money raised and other activities we have no information. A Church team “planted” the trees – I think about 12 – and arranged them in church for the charities to decorate. Church was cleared on the following Monday, the trees put outside as we planned to sell them off during the evening. The problem was freezing fog descended and no-one turned up!
Lots of lessons were learned but the Festival must have been a general success for in 2002 there were 35 charity trees plus refreshments, a stall and Grand Draw. In 2002 totals raised were: for charities £3,784 and for church £3,364 and many thank you letters were received by the Rector. The Festival went from strength to strength. By 2010 there were 78 charities (too many!) who each had a tree and who shared £18,070. The church raised £17,334. By 2010 the Festival was running for 8 days, Thursday to Thursday 10am to 8pm.
We have now settled on an optimal number of 55 trees. This stunning sight is hugely enhanced by the trees themselves, generously donated each year by our friends at Fakenham Garden Centre. Each tree is decorated by a different charity, some national, some local, and each has their own collecting bucket. All the money in the bucket goes to the charity, some making several hundred pounds, mostly in coppers and small change. The total raised by the charities has, in the last few years, been around £18,000 to £19,000.
At the start, a team under the Church Treasurer counted all the money, banked it and sent a cheque to each charity. An interesting sight on the Monday morning for several years was the Treasurer taking the money to the bank in a child’s buggy! Most of the money consists of low value coins which are heavy! With a change of Treasurer the system changed so each charity became responsible for collecting and banking their own money. The days of a church team counting money until nearly midnight in a cold church were over!
Not everyone was as charitably minded. On the night of Saturday 3rd December 2011 thieves broke in to church and stole a small amount of money from the charity buckets. Fortunately as the buckets are emptied shortly before close each evening a minimum of money was left in church so not too much was taken. Kindly, many individuals and groups made donations to share among the charities to make up the losses.
Several thousand people attend the Festival each year and, as well as the trees, can enjoy tea and coffee, home-made cakes and light lunches. There is a stall selling Christmas gifts, cakes and books, a raffle and a tombola. The Festival has come a long way in twenty years!
Fakenham Parish Church is a working church at the heart of its community. There are several teams who plan and organise; bake mountains of cakes and pour endless cups of tea; set up and run the stall, raffle and tombola. The money made for the work of the church, £17,000 in 2019, is, of course, important. So too are the hourly prayers, provided by the charities, said each day, the Festival Service on the mid-festival Sunday and the six prayer trees in the chancel by the crib. By the end of the Festival these trees are covered with individual prayers, written by visitors on yellow stars. These are taken off after Christmas and dedicated during the Epiphany service in January.
2020 was intended to be a great celebration of 20 years of the Christmas Tree Festival. Instead it was a new venture – a virtual festival. Organising the virtual festival and involving much of the town in it made us realise that Fakenham’s Christmas Tree Festival is greatly appreciated and valued by many businesses, groups and individuals as well as the charities and the church involved. In talking to individual charity representatives when filming the videos it also become clear that the publicity for their cause is as important to them as the money they raise by taking part.
Since then, we have held two more successful ‘real’ Festivals and are planning the 23rd. We are greatly encouraged by the return of many groups, and the appearance every year of new ones. The 2023 Christmas Tree Festival runs from 30th November to 7th December 2023. We hope to see you there.