WATERVILLE — With the opening of the Sukeforth Family Festival of Trees this weekend, Waterville has begun to usher in the holiday season. Families from surrounding towns flocked to the American Legion building on Sunday to browse a display of 73 sparkling Christmas trees, each with a unique pile of themed gifts beneath it, donated by a local business. By next week, some of these visitors might find themselves the new owners one of these trees — and its corresponding presents — after they are raffled off on Nov. 25.

While the festival is open, guests can purchase tickets and “bid” on the displays by dropping the tickets into the buckets placed next to each tree. Some prize packages, like the tree full of earrings, necklaces and bracelets from Day’s Jeweler, are valued at up to $3,000.

The festival has become an annual tradition, hosted by Rita and Doug Sukeforth and their family since 2015. Earnings from the event are donated to Hospice Volunteers of Waterville Area, Maine Children’s Home for Little Wanderers and Spectrum Generations Muskie Center Meals on Wheels. In 2016, the festival raised $200,000, and Doug Sukeforth said he expects a similar, if not larger, sum this year.

“We’ve grown,” he said. “Each year we’ve been growing in how much we raise for charity.”

This is the first time the event has been held at the American Legion Post building on College Avenue. It previously took place at the Hathaway Creative Center. Despite the change of venue, Doug Sukeforth noted that the opening weekend has been a success.

“It was a little slow Friday because of the weather, but it’s been great so far today,” Doug Sukeforth said. “It’s easy in and easy out with the parking, and there’s plenty of room inside.”

A camping trip-themed tree donated by the Maine State Credit Union features a six-person tent, folding chairs, a fire pit and a portable Coleman Sportster grill, among other items. The tree from Arbo’s Towing and Repair contains practical car supplies like flares, a pressure gauge and an ice scraper. Several include children’s toys and games, ranging from Hot Wheels to Marble Run. Others have fewer material items on display, but offer services like private dance lessons from Arioso Ballroom.

For many people, the event provides an opportunity to ease into Christmastime.

“It puts you in the spirit,” said Megan Wranosky. “It’s fun to see the creativity of everyone.”

Wranosky’s 3-year-old son, Ryan, said he enjoyed telling Santa Claus — also in attendance at the festival — what he was wishing for this year.

After browsing the aisles, some of the younger folks in the crowd felt inspired to create a tree of their own.

“I am in love with books, and I was thinking about building a book tree,” said Evelyn Hayes, 11, of Poland. “I’d put books sort of in a circle, and then just stack them up like a pyramid and then put a bunch of different color bookmarks on the sides so they sort of look like candles. Then we’d have maybe a few gift cards to Books-A-Million.”

Hayes’ mother, Sarah, noticed a pattern to the flow of people on Sunday.

“It’s kind of like a parade with a chance for the audience to contribute something,” she noted.

Doug Sukeforth said that one of his favorite parts of the event is providing a space for people to come together for a good cause.

“So many people come and see people they haven’t seen in a while, and people enjoy that,” he said.

Last year, the event faced a setback when a man attempted to steal hundreds of dollars’ worth of donated gifts and up to $1,000 of lottery tickets. The majority of the items were ultimately recovered and the suspect was arrested. Doug Sukeforth said he hopes something like that does not happen again.

The festival will continue from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, Nov. 25, it will open at 10 a.m. and close at 4 p.m. Winners will be announced on Sunday evening. 50-50 raffle drawings occur on each day that the event runs. On Saturday, the winner took home $2,500, according to Sukeforth.

As Joe Deblois, of Fairfield, and his wife, Tina, decided which trees to allocate tickets to, he captured the mood of the day.

“We’re hopeful,” he said. “We always have hope.”

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @megrobbins

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