Christmas Tree Elegance had a humble start as a one-day event in 1983. Raffle tickets went toward six holiday trees bearing gifts that ranged from a Schweitzer ski package to a musical theme with a Panasonic stereo system – all to benefit the Spokane Symphony.
The festive fundraiser has since returned every holiday season, except for 2020 during the pandemic. Judy Putnam, first-year chair, came up with the idea to raffle off elaborate Christmas tree packages, after she saw a similar benefit in California.
She and others in Spokane Symphony Associates set up in a ballroom at Cavanaugh’s Inn at the Park. Putnam estimates they sold about 8,000 raffle tickets at that first event, also featuring a Crescent department store fashion show and dinner-dance, all raising more than $10,000.
“For the Symphony Associates, that was the largest amount we’d ever been able to contribute, so it was exciting,” said Putnam, now living in Arizona. “We would always have plant sales, rummage sales, those sorts of things, and they’d never made $10,000.”
When Christmas Tree Elegance returns Tuesday, it will mark the event’s 40th year, still benefiting the symphony. Volunteers have prepped 500,000 raffle tickets – many in bundles of 25 – for a chance to win one of 15 trees with gifts or a Father Christmas sculpture, said Peggy Springer, a volunteer since 1987 and chair of ticket sales the past 20 years. The event runs through Dec. 11.
Many trees include cash prizes. Gift items can range from a motorcycle to airplane tickets. Over four decades, the event has raised more than $5.6 million for the symphony. It moved in 2002 to the Historic Davenport, and in recent years added trees at River Park Square.
“We were at Inn at the Park for years, then Crescent Court, then back to the Inn for a year but it had changed names,” Springer said.
Ahead of the move to the Davenport, volunteers didn’t know if 9/11 would mean fewer visitors, she said, but it was one of the event’s best years. “We came here and I remember the morning of 9/11, we had a meeting at the hotel with hard hats on – because the hotel was being finished – to discuss Christmas Tree Elegance 2002.”
Springer said Spokane-area residents, and even people from as far as Montana and Canada, have made Christmas Tree Elegance part of their holiday traditions to stroll through the hotel’s mezzanine level to view elaborately decorated trees and the gift assortments.
Many do a little dreaming, with a raffle ticket for $1.
“We still sell a ticket for a dollar after 40 years,” Springer said. “We do that because we want everyone to participate. A lot of people say, ‘I know I won’t win, but I’m supporting the symphony.’ ”
The 13 days require long hours, but Springer said it’s a fun place to be. “People when buying tickets, they’re always so happy, and I have many friends in the symphony associates.”
This year along with a co-chair, Springer has someone else shadowing her work to take over eventually, she said. The symphony associates nonprofit works to support “a world-class orchestra,” its website says. A few hundred volunteers work on Christmas Tree Elegance for 11 months, including procurement.
Individuals and businesses donate to create the tree displays, valuing up to $4,999 in decorations and prizes.
Winners of trees are often shell-shocked, Springer said. There are heartwarming moments, too, such as a family that won cash to use for children’s health needs, and someone who turned a win over to Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital – gifting a Lionel train set.
“It wasn’t long ago that a tree at the mall was won by a man from Montana,” Springer said. “He and his wife had come every year to Spokane to shop and go to Christmas Tree Elegance. His wife had died recently, but he still came to Spokane, and won.
“People tell us all the time that it’s a tradition. They come to have hot cider or cocoa, bring the kids, have lunch or dinner, go shopping.”
The peak in tickets totaled more than 437,000 sold in 2019. Springer said volunteers can stay on top of that amount, because many tickets are sold and registered to one name under blocks of 25.
The process gets watched carefully, Springer added. “We had to get permission from the Washington State Gambling Commission to do the blocks of 25. Raffles are considered gambling. I’m a bit of a sergeant when it comes to surveying and watching over the process.”
Springer first got recruited by a stranger, when she went with friends to look at a newly built house after she and her husband moved back to Spokane in the 1980s. A woman at that house asked if Springer would help with a tree.
She did, and went on to work on a few more trees, then became assistant treasurer and treasurer, before overseeing tickets. Springer moved to Spokane in the 1960s to teach school, first at Shaw Middle School and then as original faculty at Ferris High School when it opened. For her husband’s work to be a pilot, they later moved to the East Coast for several years.
“We lived in New York and Virginia, then we moved back to Spokane in 1984.” By then, she was focused on their two sons and volunteering. “Here, it became Christmas Tree Elegance and symphony associates in a hurry.”
One of her roles included seven years on a national volunteer panel for the League of American Orchestras. At a conference in Philadelphia, another volunteer’s husband called her “the Christmas Tree lady,” she said.
“That’s because every time we had meetings of this volunteer council, I was talking about Spokane and the Christmas Tree Elegance project. We’ve won awards for it time and time again. The last time was called the classic award, which meant it’s a fundraiser that has stood the test of time.
“I was known as the Christmas tree lady not because of me but because of Spokane doing this fundraiser that everybody knew about.”
She once sent information about how to organize such an event to a Virginia symphony group, but a friend there after a while didn’t reach out again, and Springer guesses it didn’t continue long. She thinks Spokane’s event has grown because of several factors converging.
“We have the volunteers, we have this beautiful hotel and people will come downtown, so you have all these elements fitting together,” she said.
Putnam also added another ingredient, that Spokane-area residents and businesses have always supported the symphony.
“I think there is love and appreciation for the symphony, and so many people are willing to give,” said Putman, who volunteered in the early years before a move out of state. She plans to attend at least one of this year’s Christmas Tree Elegance luncheons held Dec. 6-7.
The luncheons at the Davenport will have a music program by James Lowe and symphony members. Tickets are at www.spokanesymphonyassoc.org.
“Spokane is lucky to have such a wonderful orchestra, and it is such a wonderful contribution to the city economically and even for your personal enjoyment,” Putnam said.
“I can’t believe it’s been 40 years. It’s a nice, nice gift from the community. I’m so happy with the community’s support, and for $1, you can have an absolutely gorgeous Christmas tree and wonderful memories.”
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