The White House has its meticulously decorated sky-high National Christmas Tree, and Rockefeller Center in New York City is known for the towering Christmas tree that keeps heads craning upward in the Big Apple. But ask Krista Gawronski about the most spectacular trees around, and she’ll direct you to Petaluma.
The historic city with its downtown iron-front buildings, Victorian homes and noted restaurants has something else worthy of bragging rights — the Festival of Trees hosted by the Fabulous Women of Sonoma County, a nonprofit that assists local and global causes.
“It’s free, it’s magical and it’s really a beautiful thing. It’s storybook-like,” said Gawronski, who heads the Petaluma-based organization. “It’s really as it should be.”
Introduced in 2011, the all-volunteer Festival of Trees is designed to share the joys of the holiday season while encouraging goodwill. By bidding on trees and buying boutique items, raffle tickets and sweet treats, visitors help Sonoma County charities as well as the Fabulous Women’s global cause, the Rwanda School Project.
This year, a special Sonoma Strong raffle will support fire victims, with proceeds going to the Redwood Credit Union Fire Relief Fund. Prizes include a trip for two to Las Vegas; a sports package with tickets to Warriors, 49ers and Giants games; and a wine and spirits package with a customized ice bucket crafted from a wine barrel.
The festival will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 1 and from 3 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2 at Hotel Petaluma, 205 Kentucky St. The Sonoma Strong raffle continues through the hotel’s Gingerbread House Showcase & Competition from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Dec. 15 and 16 and 1 to 5 p.m. Dec. 17 in the hotel’s ballroom. Admission is free to both events.
The annual festival has grown into a community celebration that’s raised “hundreds of thousands of dollars” for good causes, all while spreading good cheer, Gawronski said.
“It kind of captures the soul of our group.”
Individual trees have sold from $200 to $2,500 each, with an option to bid or “buy now” at a selected price.
The event premise is simple. Businesses, nonprofit organizations, individuals and groups can sponsor a tree by coming up with a theme, decorating a tree with handcrafted or purchased items and then adding “something of value,” Gawronski said.
Live music adds to the festive mood, with the Pacific Empire Chorus among this year’s performers. Santa Claus will be on hand to pose for photos, and a snow machine will add some cold-weather ambiance.
All proceeds are split between the Rwanda School Project and two Sonoma County charities chosen from those submitting grant applications. Recipients — one specifically for youth-based services — are announced on opening night.
Sometimes, nonprofits both give and receive.
Petaluma-based PEP Housing provides seniors with quality affordable housing, support services and advocacy. It’s been part of the decorating force and is among the charities that have been given grants to help others.
Gawronski, 47, considers it a win-win celebration.
This year’s festival, with the theme “Tidings of Comfort and Joy,” features 70 Christmas trees, each a 4-foot-tall wonder designed to shine.
Themes have included a Harry Potter tree put together by Fundemonium in Rohnert Park, a vintage-style tree with handmade ornaments by Petaluma artist Cathe Holden, and a New Orleans tree with a Mardi Gras dinner party certificate.
“There are all kinds of beautiful trees,” Gawronski said. Each is unique, and includes gift items or certificates for experiences like the Mardi Gras dinner party Gawronski and her friends hosted, complete with authentic hurricane cocktails and jazz music.
The trees showcase the talent and creativity found in the community, their branches holding everything from wine corks and dog treats to iridescent baubles and colorful ribbons and bows.
The festival is one of many fundraising efforts organized by the Fabulous Women. As president and founding board member, Gawronski is dedicated to helping others.
“There are so many miracles that come from this, and life lessons,” she said. “Life lessons are really important to our organization.”
The group was established in 2005, after 30 friends and acquaintances came together at Gawronski’s house to brainstorm on ways to help a Petaluma mother of a 5-year-old and a newborn, whose husband had died unexpectedly while he was visiting relatives in England.
“I couldn’t imagine what that would be like,” Gawronski recalls thinking. “We had an opportunity to surround this mom.”
That evening, the group pulled together $1,000 in donations for the woman, simply by passing around a paint can Gawronski had decorated for the cause.
From that initial effort, the Fabulous Women emerged.
“There’s been a lot of growth in 12 years, and we are pretty proud of it,” Gawronski said. “Thirty women has turned into a couple thousand people.”
A core group of seven board members and 10 advisory members, with help from numerous others, has expanded outreach to include a workshop series addressing topics of importance to women; a scholarship fund for high school students; a Gifts of the Heart community fund supporting local families facing extraordinary hardships; and conferences including one for mothers and daughters addressing safety, self-esteem and community service.
Its program about elder care, “Care Giving with Grace,” is among many ways the nonprofit has assisted the community and raised awareness about important issues. A bone marrow drive it organized for an 11-year-old Petaluma boy added about 800 names to the national bone marrow registry.
Gawronski, the mother of two teen boys and owner of the Mr. Pickles sandwich shop in Petaluma, believes that every step to help another person is an important one. Small efforts matter, she said, and can grow — just like the Fabulous Women group.
A longtime fan of TV maven Oprah Winfrey, Gawronski and her sister were invited to attend Winfrey’s final “Oprah’s Favorite Things” TV talk show segment, where an audience of community volunteers was surprised with thousands of dollars of merchandise.
Watching the show later, “I felt like I was watching someone else, but I was happy for that girl,” Gawronski said, grinning.
That was in 2010, after Gawronski had been inspired by Winfrey during a conference in San Francisco that asked participants to consider their purpose and how they could make a difference. She wrote to Winfrey’s show simply to spread the word about her group.
“Everyday people can do extraordinary things,” Gawronski said. The Fabulous Women’s success “was because people came together with good intentions.”
The Festival of Trees is one more way to reach out and make a difference. The twinkling Christmas tree lights, decorative efforts, music and merriment create community, highlight merchants and nonprofits and help others.
For Gawronski, it’s a grand tradition.