Tinsel Tech: Making the Festival of Christmas Trees a virtual reality


Interior of Old Brumby Church at night full of pretty Christmas trees with colourful lights.
How the festival usually looks 📸 Photo: Rob Jefferson

As COVID curtailed community events across the country in 2020, the Rotary Club of Scunthorpe’s annual Festival of Christmas Trees looked set to be a casualty too. The main beneficiary of the festival, Lindsey Lodge Hospice, had experienced one of its toughest fundraising years to date with cancellations of many traditional fundraising events. Undeterred, the festival organisers decided to look at alternative means to host the festival, which is how scunthorpetreefest.uk was born.

In ordinary times

Run over the first couple of weekends during December, the Festival Of Christmas Trees attracts hundreds of visitors each year who donate vital funds to the hospice. To date, it’s raised over £60,000 to help keep Lindsey Lodge going for those that need it.

Ordinarily by this time of year it would be well underway at Old Brumby United Church in Scunthorpe, hosting over 80 beautifully Christmas trees decorated in lots of creative ways. The event has run continually since 2005 with only one year’s festival cancelled due to a deluge of snow.

However, as North Lincolnshire entered the highest Tier 3 COVID restrictions after the exiting the second national lockdown of 2020, it was inevitable that a physical event was not going to happen this year either.

A family affair

At this point I think it’s only fair that I declare a personal interest in all of this. The festival was first conceived by my parents, Sue and George, and they’ve stewarded it ever since with the support of dozens of fellow Rotarians, volunteers and Mum’s sister (my Aunty) Linda to make it happen.

My parents have spent countless hours together over the years, concocting new and inventive ways to delight the festival-goers. Come July, Dad would usually head off into the garage to start making the festival centrepiece involving trains, woodwork, electronics, kids toys - you name it! Meanwhile, Mum would be beavering away on the logistical side, liaising with nearly a hundred different local organisations who wanted to enter their trees to the festival.

A time of tragedy

About this time last year, when the 2019 festival was about to kick off, my mother started to develop problems with her liver. She underwent several tests and spent the entirety of the festival in hospital. Dad in his typical, selfless style, divided his time between making sure the 2019 festival ran as smoothly as possible then headed straight off to the hospital at visiting times to be with Mum.

After Christmas, we learned that she had developed quite a rare form of bile duct cancer that was unfortunately at a stage where palliative care was the only option. You can probably see where this is going so to cut a long, tragic story short, she passed away earlier this year in hospital on June 18th - Dad’s birthday. COVID meant that visitation was limited until right at the very end of her life and it’s bitterly ironic that she never actually made it to Lindsey Lodge, a charity her and Dad have been supporters of for many years.

The show must go on

Returning to the festival; in light of the challenges the hospice has faced this year and the personal heartbreak my father and I have endured, we both wanted to make sure the event continued in some way, shape or form. As Autumn neared, a new festival committee was formed to take forward Scunthorpe’s first ever Virtual Festival of Christmas Trees.

The concept has evolved over the last couple of months but on 5 December 2020, the festival opened the virtual doors of its brand new website, designed and developed by Knapton Wright, the agency I joined just before last Christmas.

As I write this, there are 50 trees already on the site which is fantastic considering it’s a new concept. Each tree that’s been submitted by a business, organisation, group or individual has its own page packed with photos and sometimes videos too. Clearly it’s never going to be quite as magical as the usual event but ultimately, it’s about raising as much money as possible for the hospice. Today, the donation page just ticked over the £1,000 mark which is fantastic going just 48 hours in.

Like every year, it’s been a team effort to get it this far with the continued support of Rotarians, the hospice and KW colleagues to help promote the new format for the festival. They’ve helped to get some famous faces on board too including Ian MacMillan, the BBC’s Amanda White, Peter Levy, Kofi Smiles and weather forecaster Darren Bett, plus one of my childrens’ favourite authors and illustrators - Nick Sharratt. The real stars of course are all of the kids who’ve taken part in the Christmas Rhyme.

A little Christmas joy goes a long way

As you can imagine, it’s been a pretty emotional affair this year but what tipped me over the edge most recently (in a good way) was watching the first airing of the beautiful virtual performance of a specially commissioned carol entitled ‘Looking for a Stable’. Zoom choirs have been all the rage this year but if you’ve not seen one yet, I urge you to have a watch of the performance (and have a tissue close-by).

Finally, I must thank Alex, Louise and the fantastic team at KW for getting fully behind the concept and agreeing for us to volunteer our time and technical know-how to bring the virtual festival to life. Similarly, a word to my father. I’m incredibly proud of what you and Mum have achieved for the Hospice over the years. It’s been an honour to contribute more this year and keep the festival going in her absence.

It leaves me to say that if you’re not quite in the Christmas spirit yet, grab a mince pie, some mulled wine and head on over to the Scunthorpe Festival of Christmas Trees website and enjoy what’s on offer. Just make sure you leave the Hospice a few quid on your way out.

Thank you so very much.