This annual festival has run for the past 18 years and is the informal start of Christmas celebrations in Salisbury. The church is filled with Christmas trees and is open to the public for a week at the start of December, completely free to visit. Local choirs and bands perform festive favourites, a small café is open at the back of the church, and the whole event raises thousands of pounds for local charities.
St. Thomas's Church is at the very heart of Salisbury: originally a place of worship for those who built the cathedral, it has remained an integral part of the city. Founded by Bishop Poore in 1219 as a small wooden building, it was soon rebuilt in stone and has undergone many changes over the years. It has some wonderful medieval paintings on its walls, most famous of course being the recently restored Doom Painting, the largest and best preserved in the UK.
The Christmas Tree festival in St. Thomas's is one of the oldest in the UK, with the first one taking place in 2004. Although it comes a week or so after the switch on of the Christmas lights across the city, for many it is the Tree Festival which heralds the arrival of the festive season. The church is transformed into a small forest of trees, each one created by a different group; a charity looking to raise awareness, a community group who have made a tree to highlight their work, or a small business to advertise their services.
Each tree is wildly different; there are some traditional trees but there are also many where creativity has flourished, and the trees are often made from and decorated with an eclectic assortment of objects. Arranged down the aisles, the nave, the Lady Chapel, even the High Altar, the trees fill the church with vivid colours and twinkling lights.
Music is provided by an assortment of local groups - school choirs, brass bands, orchestras, singers, pianists, pipers and hand bell ringers, who all perform underneath the Doom Painting in front of the chancel.
There is no obligation to sit and listen during their performances, although many do, but there are plenty of other people wandering around admiring the trees with the gentle hubbub of chatter as the backdrop.
There is a small café open in the vestry at the back of the church. Although a church's vestry is usually a space for the clergy to change and have their offices, in St Thomas's it is known as 'The People's Vestry' and is an open space for everyone. Serving coffee, tea and cake, it is open for much of the tree festival and seems to do a thriving trade throughout.
Visiting the Christmas Tree Festival
The festival is free to visit. As you enter you are handed a printed programme which tells you about every tree on display. Each tree is numbered and so you can see who created it, what they've called it and the idea behind it. Many of the trees have further information underneath them so you can read more about what the organisation does. The trees are all very popular with kids, who love not just the lights and colours but the often whimsical decorations.
You can stay as long as you like. Many people take their time to wander around, have a cup of tea, sit to listen to the music, and on the way out you return your programme and put a donation in the box.
All of the money donated is split between local charities - in 2021 they made £13,000 to go to charities, and I suspect it is more and more each year, due to the popularity of the event. In 2022 they had maps next to the organ where you could put a sticker to show where you came from and although there was the expected heavy concentration of people from the local area, there were others from the far flung corners of the globe.
Visiting at different times of day gives you a different experience. Visiting on a weekday morning has a far more peaceful and contemplative atmosphere, with the trees standing out vividly in the bright sunlight, the ornaments far more visible. Visiting towards the end of the day as darkness falls means that the lights from the trees overshadow the decorations, but give a wonderful luminous and festive effect. At weekends of course it is far busier, leading to a very jolly and cheery atmosphere, with young faces looking entranced by the lights and colours.
The whole event is an enriching and rewarding experience, and even the hardiest of Scrooges would find it impossible to leave without feeling thoroughly festive.
Visiting the Christmas Tree Festival
Follow their website for dates of the next one
Feeling festive in Salisbury? Try a Twilight Tower Tour of the cathedral