Busier than elves: interior design students volunteer to make Fairfield Christmas Tree Festival dazzle brighter than ever

University of Bridgeport students pitch in prior to Fairfield’s premier holiday extravaganza
Christmas decorations and toys

What’s better than attending the Fairfield Christmas Tree Festival’s “A Season to Give and Grow,” one of the area’s most dazzling fundraisers?

For a group of interior design majors at the University of Bridgeport who have been helping to decorate the Burr Homestead in Fairfield the week, it’s been the opportunity to volunteer before the festival’s preview gala being held tonight.

The students’ eagerness to help with the four-day celebration is understandable: the Fairfield Christmas Tree Festival has been a prestigious rite among the area’s top designers since the early 1980s, when local volunteers organized the first event to raise funds for local causes.

Since then, the festival has grown from a modest fundraiser into the community’s premier holiday weekend. It’s also among the most lucrative, generating significant funds to support a different charity each year.

This year, the festival will run from Thursday, November 29 through Sunday, December 2.

Proceeds will support McGivney Community Center, which helps young people in Bridgeport to achieve academic success and build esteem through a variety of enrichment programs.

“It’s such an important event, both from a community perspective and for designers,” said Ellen Hyde Phillips, an adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport’s interior design program.  Philips is owner of Fairfield Interiors and has volunteered at the festival for over a decade. She invited interior design students to pitch in, calling it “an amazing opportunity.”

“The best designers volunteer their time to recreate the rooms in the Burr Homestead and support a great cause,” Phillips said.  “And it’s also a lot of fun!”

Elegance and pizazz  

When student Rachel Watchke, a junior, learned that volunteers were needed at Burr Homestead, she signed on immediately. “I am so into it!” she said. “I’m from Southport; I know the effect the holiday tree festival has as a fundraiser. From my perspective, volunteering is about giving your free time, so if you can do what you love, then it’s a win-win.”

Festival organizers say they expect thousands of guests to tour Burr Homestead this weekend, shop at the festival’s holiday gift boutique, and purchase tickets to Fairfield Holiday Christmas Tree must-attend events that include the opening Jingle & Mingle party, a Holiday Hip Hop Family Night, the Casino Noelle, and a Nutcracker "Sweet" Tea with a performances by members of the corps of the New England Ballet Company.

The festival also will honor Terry J. O’Connor, executive director of the McGivney Community Center and a member of the University of Bridgeport’s Board of Trustees.

The festival’s success depends upon an army of volunteers tending to thousands of details and upon the creative expertise of designers who take charge of transforming the 18th-century Burr Homestead into a holiday wonderland brimming with equal measures of elegance and pizazz.

“Our students are soaking it all up,” said Interior Design Chair Marsha Matto as students helped some of the designers at Burr Homestead. A little over 24 hours remained before the festival’s opening Mingle and Jingle party, and there was still plenty left to do.

“They’re learning it takes a lot of work,” Matto continued. “There are interior designers who have been here for days, moving furniture, getting on ladders—doing whatever is necessary to stage gorgeous interiors. Sometimes it’s hard to understand that design isn’t just about concept unless you do something like this.”

Endless yards of ribbon

Like elves with a particularly sophisticated sense of style, the design students helped wherever they were needed. Student Kelly Howard spent days helping designer Deb Champa hang wreaths festooned with miniature sports equipment and books—the kind of details that had been specifically chosen to visually communicate McGivney Center’s work on behalf of kids. Other design students made bows out of endless yards of red and gold ribbon and tagged jewelry, ornaments, and hundreds of stocking stuffers that will be for sale during the festival weekend.

Fairfield Christmas Tree Festival Board Vice President Toni Zeleney set up the holiday boutique with help from students Tiany Hicks, Laura Jara-Rivera, and Rose Vilay.  

“They came down and were willing to help in any area,” Zeleney said. “We’ve talked about decorating and staging and display and merchandising. It all correlates back to their interior design classes.”

Jara-Rivera welcomed the chance to collaborate as a team. “We exchanged different opinions and learned how to make it better. There were a lot of details,” she said.

Meanwhile, interior design student Olivia Kascak called volunteering a “no brainer.”

“I want to start a nonprofit using  my design work at some point, so this was very near to my heart,” said Kascak. “I really enjoyed it. You’re giving back, having fun, and the [Burr Homestead] building itself is beautiful. All of its architectural details made me think about how I could appropriate them into something new one day.”


Media contact: Leslie Geary, (203) 576-4625, lgeary@bridgeport.edu