photographs by Faith Teasley

Talk about your tough calls.

Here’s a tree flocked tip-to-trunk with artificial snow, and I always wanted one of these white-boughed beauties as a child, a personal white Christmas in the living room.

But wait — here’s a “Cozy Christmas” tree decorated by a local yarn shop, and as a former knitting fanatic, don’t I need this perfect little two-foot tabletop number, whose every ornament is a hand-knitted miniature, from stockings to mufflers, mittens to sweaters, topped, naturally, with a pointy toboggan instead of a star?

Pardon me while I muscle through fellow dog lovers fixated on the Labrador tree, decorated with dogs in cars, dogs under palm trees, dogs wearing Santa hats and angel wings, and dogs whose tails curl ’round lighthouses. The “Three Dog Night” bench to the side, featuring dogs cavorting under a winter moon, is already a goner: SOLD its tag proclaims. Not surprising, given that 10,000 visitors will tour this veritable forest of elaborately-decorated Christmas trees (on view and for sale) in late November at Pinehurst’s Carolina Hotel.

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This year, 280 items, including wreaths and gift baskets, will be snapped up via online auction. Proceeds go to Sandhills Children’s Center, a day school for children aged infant to 5 with (and without) developmental needs. Some kids have disorders such as Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, or autism. Some are children — attending centers in both Southern Pines and Rockingham — who suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome and shaken-baby syndrome. The facilities serve 235 children, with a waiting list, and administrators do their best to turn no one away based on inability to pay.

“Our goal with the auction is $100,000,” says Robin Duff, the community relations representative for Sandhills Children’s Center. “With sales from the raffle and gift shop, we should reach $300,000,” to support programs, classes, and compensation for the teachers, therapists, and specialists whose objective is “to make sure every child who passes through our doors is as prepared as possible for kindergarten.”

Which means that as you stroll by boughs laden with “Baby’s First Christmas” trinkets or Pinehurst’s entry decked with golf balls, umbrella, and club bag, you’ll discover six special trees. These trees are devoted solely to the year’s honorary Sandhills Children’s Center children, whose teachers have selected and purchased decorations intended to address their student’s specific developmental needs.

And while the Sandhills Children’s Center provides all the artificial trees, it’s the community, in the form of restaurants, shops, medical practices, and dozens of plain old generous individuals, who sponsor each tree, and donate their time, their funds, and an apparently bottomless well of ideas to create a stunning wonderland.

“Themed” is an inadequate adjective to describe the variety, because for every tree labeled and decked out in a seasonal motif — the Sugar Plum Fairy tree in pale violet, or the Holiday Treats tree bedecked with ribbon candy, gingerbread men, and Christmas cookie cutters — there’s a tree whose motif extends far beyond December’s usual subjects, and with goodies that extend far beyond the branches. An Italy tree donated by a mother and daughter features pizza slices and Tower of Pisa ornaments, sure, but strewn — no, heaped, piled, and stacked beneath and around it — are wine carafes, a pasta-making machine, Murano glass tumblers, Ferrero Rocher chocolates, specialty balsamic vinegars and olive oils, and a window garden for growing your own herbs to authentically flavor your pastas. Such largesse comes with a price tag to match, of course: The burlap-garlanded “Gentleman’s Tree,” which features cigars, cuff links, Woodford Reserve bourbon, bow ties, scarves, Dopp kits, a side table, and sets of fine grooming brushes, is valued at $7,500.

The Sandhills Children’s Center has come a long way since 1970, when it opened in a church with one special-needs child. So has the Festival of Trees, which featured a mere 32 trees in 1997. Kitschy to crafty, whimsical to jaw-dropping, traditional to unconventional, precious to outrageous, its displays are limited only by effort, talent — a set of hand-painted china from an Asheville artist, anyone? — and imagination. And most of all by those things that know no limits, particularly in the season of heartfelt giving: compassion, dedication, and love for the disadvantaged among us.

Pinehurst Festival of Trees
November 20-24
Carolina Hotel

80 Carolina Vista Drive
Pinehurst, NC 28374

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Susan Stafford Kelly was raised in Rutherfordton. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Carolina Classics, a collection of essays that have appeared in Our State, and five novels: How Close We Come, Even Now, The Last of Something, Now You Know, and By Accident. Susan has three grown children and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Sterling.