Well, people, I have had the great privilege this season to attend many spectacular events. I've been to balls, galas, and political dinners. I've attended events from the very high-end Keyano Gala to the lower-end but still incredibly special KD Gala. I must admit, though, that there has been one gala that I have been anxiously awaiting for months. There was one event that I've always wanted to attend, never have, and this year finally did - and I am so very, very glad I did.
The event? The Northern Lights Health Foundation Festival of Trees Gala. I've been intrigued by this gala since I first heard about it years ago. In my early years here we didn't go simply because I was so tied up raising my Intrepid Junior Blogger that the only times I went out was to Wal-Mart, the grocery store, and occasionally the dentist. Then, the past couple of years, the event was invitation only and sadly I didn't receive an invitation. This year, though, when the NLHF began to advertise the gala I immediately tweeted them and asked if it was open to the public. They replied right away, asking if I wanted to attend and if so how many tickets I required. I was delighted - I was like Cinderella finally going to the long-awaited and long-dreamed of ball. I purchased two tickets (for my husband and myself), and on Saturday evening we headed down to MacDonald Island Park and the Festival of Trees Gala.
That I have tremendous fondness for MacDonald Island Park is no secret in this community. It's where I choose to spend most of my free time (although they could use a coffee shop with free wi-fi suitable for a blogger-in-residence - just sayin'). I also tend to think it's the perfect place for events, from concerts to galas. So it seemed the perfect fit for Festival of Trees, and I think the evening proved that assumption true.
I was a bit dismayed by the line-up at the coat check, but the people there were working as quickly and efficiently as they could (I think the delay was simply due to a very small table being used at the coat check, and that everyone was dressed in several layers due to the nasty temperature). Once I had shed my coat, though, I was thrilled that despite wearing a cocktail dress I was warm and quite comfortable (that bit is something that always amazes me, how they manage to keep such large spaces warm enough for cocktail-attired guests). And then it was onto the gala itself, and I was so excited. I had anticipated this for years, and I suppose I feared being disappointed. But people - I wasn't disappointed. In fact, it exceeded my expectations.
When I entered I was first struck by the lovely trees of course, all decorated and ready for the live auction. In fact I was so enchanted by the trees that when I turned around and saw the table of welcome cocktails I assumed the figure in the middle of the table was a statue. I almost passed out when the "statue" came to life and handed me a cocktail. I thought this was incredibly creative and lovely, and set a beautiful tone for the evening.
The venue had been swathed in white cloth, with white cocktail tables, chairs, and sofas. On the main stage there was a woman in a beautiful gold dress, strumming an enormous gold harp. And on two opposite ends of the field house were two performers doing the "aerial silks", an acrobatic act I became familiar with when the youngest Intrepid Junior Blogger participated in a circus camp two years ago. The effect of all these things combined was ethereal, classy, and sophisticated. It felt like a winter wonderland, but one with a very cocktail-party atmosphere. The little touches, like the lamps on the tables, and the crystal chandeliers, completed the ambience.
Once again I must commend MacDonald Island for their part in this event. The food was terrific, and while I had never considered mashed potatoes a cocktail food I was impressed to discover how warm and comforting they were, and how well they actually complemented the winter wonderland theme. The bar service was impeccable, and the most stunning thing was perhaps the ice bars - bars in fact made of ice, with snow and red sand serving as lettering. Later in the evening I went to the bar for another drink and noticed the ice bar quietly dripping, the ice melting away as the evening was winding down (which somehow seemed appropriate, too). The wait staff was attentive and polite, and I think MacDonald Island should be proud of their staff for their performance at events such as this one. Frankly as someone who feels quite fond of MacDonald Island even I was proud of them.
My husband and I sampled the food, and indulged in a couple of drinks from the bar. When our table was approached by two young RCMP officers in dress uniform we discovered they were selling small numbered plastic diamonds, and that at the end of the evening there would be a draw for a diamond bracelet. We bought two of the little diamonds, both because we knew the money raised goes to a great cause and because I rather like sparklies (and, well, like 90 % of women I have a weakness for young men in uniforms, too).
The main event of the evening was, of course, the live auction of trees. We had come prepared to bid on and perhaps purchase a tree, and so we looked closely at all the trees to determine which we might consider bringing home. We found several candidates, and when the auction began we settled in to see how things transpired.
Ashley Crewe, one of my favourite Fort McMurray women (beautiful, intelligent, eloquent, and kind - what more could one want?), acted as the "Vanna White" of the evening, walking from tree to tree in her gorgeous red gown and helping to entice bidders. The auctioneer was also a personable sort, but I must admit I've become very fond of local auctioneer Ross Jacobs, and I missed his style at this event (and Ross brings a knowledge of local people to the auctions, meaning he's quite successful at playing bidders off each other as he knows the old rivalries well).
The auction went rapidly and well, with trees flying off the proverbial shelves. The most hotly contested and highest-earning tree was the Suncor "We Love Winter" tree, which came with a stay at Chateau Lake Louise. This tree went for the astonishing sum of $25,000, again a testament to the generousity of this community, and of our giving spirit. Other trees went for lesser amounts but some were quite popular as well, including the blue and silver Tiffany tree that came with jewelry, perfect for Christmas gifts. My husband and I bid on several, but decided each time to be content with the high price others were willing to pay. I can say I think we drove up the bidding on several trees, and thus did our own little part to increase the coffers at the NLHF.
When the auction ended it was time for the raffles, and again we did not win an item, but once again were simply happy to have contributed to the great cause of supporting our local hospital. You see, we've been here for a decade, and we've used the hospital in that time. We have been fortunate to have not had to use it for any serious emergencies, but I will always remember when my then 4-year old Intrepid Junior Blogger broke her arm, and how kind and professional they were. The hospital staff treated a frightened little girl and her equally (perhaps even more so) anxious mother with care and kindness, and thus I have soft spot in my heart for them, too.
I finished out my evening at the gala with what I am going to call the best thing I've eaten at any gala in this community - sticky toffee pudding. I rarely allow myself this treat, but when my husband brought a plate of it for me I gobbled it down like I'd never seen food before. It was warm and comforting and sweet and sticky, and the perfect end for the evening.
I admit we did not stay for any further entertainment, and we did not stay until the very end, when they typically turn up the lights and gently encourage the stragglers to leave. We gathered our coats and ventured out again into the cold night, but while my body was cold my heart was warm. I had finally attended the gala I had always wanted to attend, and it was what I hoped - and more. It was yet another example of our community coming together to support a local cause, and it was another chance to speak to some of the people in our city that I have come to respect, admire, and consider my friends. It was a chance to start my Christmas season in a giving way, and to celebrate the beginning of the season at MacDonald Island Park, a place I have come to consider almost a second home. It was time spent with my husband, and it was a time to simply stop and enjoy and revel in the ambience of a snowy white winter wonderland.
In the end while we didn't get a tree or a diamond bracelet we did win two silent auction items - lovely lamps that now adorn my living room. They cast a soft, amber glow, and now when I sit in my favourite chair I will forever be reminded of an event that has become synonymous with Christmas in my mind. To the organizers, staff, volunteers, MI team, and all others involved in the 2011 Festival of Trees Gala - thank you. Thank you for being the first to put Christmas spirit in my heart in a year when I have been struggling a bit to find it. You ignited a spark that is now a full Christmas flame, and while this may have been my first year to attend it will not be my last. The Festival of Trees Gala is all about giving, generousity, kindness, and hope. It's all about Christmas, people, and I genuinely hope that next year I will see you there, Fort Mac. The Festival of Trees Gala is, quite truly, the perfect way to kick off the Christmas season, and I am so glad that this year mine began there.