By Tony Hooker
Born out of a place of love in Kristi Bird’s heart and fueled by Cassandra Eversole Gunter’s drive for excellence and enhanced by a host of Community Members, the Villa Grove Christmas Tree Lighting festival has continued to evolve and grow since its inception. I recently sat down with these two movers and shakers, along with Mary Hite from the Korner Beehive, who has embraced the new tradition, to discuss what is changing and what’s staying the same with this year’s event.
The Christmas Tree Lighting Festival sort of began as a labor of love for you, right Kristi?
Tyler (her son) and I were talking about it in the living room one day, and Tyler then talked to Cassandra, who was behind the idea 100 percent. Really, she was the fuel behind it because she said don’t let anything stop it. Let’s just go forward with it, and that’s where it began.
Cassandra, this is one of many initiatives that have been brought to Villa Grove. Other than a love for Christmas, what has this meant to you and to Villa Grove?
<CEG> It’s a great community gathering, and it comes during a time when we haven’t been able to do that very much due to Covid. It’s a warm feeling for the community.
Would you agree that it’s really brought diverse elements of the community together? Businesses, Churches, the schools all participate. Did you have that in mind, or has that just been sort of organic?
<KB> I think we’ve just had a lot of people who said, “I want to be a part of this” and it really has drawn from many areas, and it’s been great, and they’ve come from all ages. The kids participate from gingerbread house building to the adults participating through craft sales.
Last year’s event was limited to the lighting and to kids bringing their letters to Santa. Are we doing letters again this year or will the kids have a chance to talk to Santa?
<CEG> We’ll be doing letters to Santa again this year, but it will be at the Plaza.
What’s new for the event?
<CEG> Probably not new but returning. This year we will have vendors and children’s activities. The FFA and Science club and several groups from the school will be involved.
<KB> There will be a Gingerbread house decorating contest that is sponsored by the Korner Beehive but will be held at the VFW. There will be a brunch with Santa at the Beehive. There will be a golf cart parade.
Can you tell me a little more about that?
<CEG> People can decorate their golf carts or side by sides and line up at the plaza a little before 6. We’ll take a cruise down main street to the Tree before the lighting. The high school groups and the Villa Grove queens will be judging that. It’s $20 to enter, and the favorite will get half the pot that we collect, and the other entrants will be in a drawing for gift cards from local merchants.
What time is the gingerbread house decorating?
<KB> It will be from noon to 2 at the VFW.
We haven’t mentioned that the craft fair will be relocating to the plaza from the previous spot on the tennis courts.
<KB> Yes, it’s going to be at the plaza, and we’re really excited about that. We’ll have beautiful lights and we’ll be selling Christmas Trees for people’s living rooms. It’s just a really great space for this event, with the VFW being right across the street, and near the Korner Beehive and all our other main street businesses.
What are some of the other activities that are taking place?
<KB> The library will be hosting story time and a craft making with Mrs. Claus. It’s just going to be a great day.
What time is the official Christmas Tree Lighting?
<CEG> 6:30 p.m.
Tell me about some of the other things that are happening?
<MH> Unfortunately, Beth couldn’t be here today, but working at Sarah Bush, she came up with the idea of having a festival of trees. Rather than going to businesses and asking for donations, we’re going to local businesses and asking them to purchase a three- or four-foot artificial Christmas tree and decorate it in a theme of their choice. They’ll display them the week of Thanksgiving so people can see them, and then the day of the festival, we’ll put them in the plaza, and they’ll be up for silent auction. I believe we’re also asking the vendors if they’d be willing to donate a gift basket or something to add to the value of the silent auction. If anyone hasn’t been contacted but wants to participate, they should get ahold of Beth or I at the Beehive.
Very Cool. Where else do you think this can go? It just keeps growing.
<KB> Of course our goal is the ice-skating rink. We would love to offer that to our community.
<CEG> That’s been one of the goals since the beginning.
<KB> I would love to see this event grow into something like “Villa Grove Town”. Other communities have an entire weekend of events for their Christmas Town, and I would love to see us be able to do something like that. I think that starting here, it can build to that. It’s generated a lot of excitement, just in the last few years of having this.
Will there be food at the Festival?
<CEG>The VFW will be offering chili, at no charge. They’re asking simply that people make a donation toward the event so that we can continue to add activities and prizes for the kids. Of course, we’ll also have our bake sale, so if anyone wants to donate their treats for sale, we’ll gladly accept them.
Do you think people will come back after having it be so limited last year?
<KB> Absolutely. I think people are ready to get back out. We chose to do the event outside and I think people are ready. A lot of people didn’t get to have their Christmas celebration last year in the way that they’re used to, and I think that the excitement is there.
<MH> I think Covid made people in the community more supportive of things that are local and in the community.
<CEG> I wanted to mention that Bruce Allen will be bringing the Barrel Train that he built in his shop. He’ll be giving rides to the children. We haven’t had many opportunities to do that because of Covid, so we’re very excited to have him be able to do that. I also wanted to thank Trisa’s quilting corner for having an open house that night.
<KB> We can’t forget that Santa will think that he’ll be at the Plaza around 4-6, but he’s got a busy schedule so the time might be a little off. We’re also going to have caroling, possibly with the high school choir.
<CEG> The FFA will be providing hayrack rides to different stores, like Trisa’s and the Main Street businesses.
I wish we could get houses in Villa Grove to put up their Christmas Decorations on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
<KB> I agree! I grew up with Candlestick Lane in Urbana, and I think Villa Grove needs a Candlestick Lane!
<CEG> I think it’s always worth mentioning that Jackie will always have great things going on at the library. There will be more details in the coming days.
<KB> We’ll have children’s games again this year and the VGHS student council will be helping me at the plaza. They have been wonderful.
Is there anything that we’ve missed? Anything we need to add?
<KB> I just want to encourage people to bring their families and enjoy what Villa Grove has to offer, and to just enjoy the season of Christmas. There are so many joys of Christmas in this community. When that tree gets lit, it’s so powerful and overwhelming.