Festival of Trees celebrates Christmas, Kwanzaa and so much more

Anthony Maenza
York Dispatch

For Kelly Summerford, this tree has a message.

The director of the William C. Goodridge Freedom Center and Underground Railroad Museum was crafting part of his creation for the museum's annual Festival of Trees, which features Christmas trees with decorations that highlight York's history and culture.

Specifically, Summerford's most recent creation is a tree for Kwanzaa, a seven-day celebration of African American history and culture that follows Christmas — and which had its roots in York.

"Creativity especially fits in with our presentation of Christmas trees, because creativity is something that many African Americans have and use," Summerford said, "all the way from dance to theater. It reminds us of that."

The tree honors Maulana Karenga, previously known as Ron McKinley Everett, an activist from York who started the celebration back in the 1960s. The words Summerford was creating on his computer are part of the seven principles that are celebrated during Kwanzaa.

Those principles — unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith — are all reflected in the tree Summerford created. A handmade doll that is part of the tree display also represents the creativity that African Americans had to rely on in order to give their children something for Christmas, he said.

Kwanzaa itself means "first fruits," so a fruit tree is also part of the display, Summerford said.

“Those principles were put together so African Americans would have a meaningful holiday,” he said. “It’s not a traditional holiday, but it is something we definitely celebrate.” 

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There are 31 decorated trees throughout the museum that touch on the city’s history and culture as the museum celebrates “Wonderful York,” the theme for this year’s Festival of Trees. 

The public can get their first glimpse of the trees in all their finery during First Friday, from 5 to 9 p.m. Dec. 2 at the museum at 123 E. Philadelphia St. The museum will be open every Wednesday (Dec. 7, 14, 21, 28) and Saturday (Dec. 3, 10, 17) in December from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Touring the exhibit is free of charge. 

The Goodridge Freedom Center's festival of trees preview in York on Nov. 23, 2022

It is the fourth year the museum has celebrated York through Christmas trees.

The Christmas tree holds particular significance at the Goodridge Freedom Center because William C. Goodridge displayed the first Christmas tree in York back in 1840.

Goodridge, an African American, was a conductor along the Underground Railroad, and his home served as a stop for those enslaved people seeking freedom.

Summerford said the room with the Kwanzaa tree display has a viewing window through which visitors can see a room where slaves were hidden on their way to freedom.

Kelly Summerford, museum director at the Goodridge Freedom Center, decorating this Kwanzaa themed tree during the festival of trees preview in York on Nov. 23, 2022

"(We thought) that would be the perfect room for something like that," he said.

Museum volunteer Stephany Sechrist said it was Goodridge's ties to the Christmas tree that inspired the creation of the Festival of Trees back in 2016.

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Among the trees on display is one decorated with maps that show the route of the Underground Railroad. Another recognizes Crispus Attucks York and highlights the types of services it offers. 

Another tree honors Goodridge’s wife, Evelina, and is upstairs in what was formerly a daguerreotype studio for his sons. His sons — Glenalvin, Wallace and William — were well known for their work in the early form of photography. 

Other trees celebrate York's industry, architecture and events, including the York State Fair, but all are what make Wonderful York.