Though she’s been contributing to Utah’s Festival of Trees for the last five years, Patti Peterson had never been there to see it in person until this week — knowing her first time would also likely be her last.
“I actually didn’t know if I’d make it to Thanksgiving,” said Peterson, who lives in Las Vegas. “I feel fine. I think I probably have another six or eight weeks, which is a surprise.”
Peterson, who has a terminal cancer diagnosis, first got involved with the annual holiday festival here in 2017. That was shortly after the now 64-year-old was diagnosed with a rare subdermal form of melanoma, when she was coming up from Nevada to go to Salt Lake City’s Huntsman Cancer Institute.
As she was being treated, Peterson said, she needed to find something to occupy her mind. “I can’t have this just be about me,” she said. “I have to have it be about something, so I’m not always feeling sorry for myself.”
She searched online for volunteer opportunities and found a listing from the Festival of Trees, calling for people to sew pillowcases for donation. Peterson said she was a good enough seamstress to make those, so she would craft a few and bring them back to Salt Lake City to drop off when she came up.
“It made the cancer journey so fun,” Peterson said. “There’s no other way of putting it, except it was just fun.”
She’s loved donating to the annual holiday festival. And now, with a new addition in her honor, she hopes to have an influence on it for years to come, even when she’s not able to be there again.
On Tuesday, she was finally there in person and showed off her family’s handiwork — a new massive facade for the festival’s Elf Emporium store named in her honor.
The festival, now in its 51st year, is a fundraiser for Primary Children’s Hospital, which receives money from the silent auction of hundreds of volunteer-decorated Christmas trees and other holiday items, such as donated pillowcases — as well as decorations and hundreds of pounds of fudge sold through the Elf Emporium.
“I didn’t to want to leave a tree or a bench with a plaque,” Peterson said with a smile. “I wanted to leave an Elf Emporium.”
Peterson summoned her family — including a brother who is a builder — and they went to work. The result is a huge storefront, looking like a Christmas cottage, for the festival’s gift shop.
“It’s way more than anyone was expecting,” Peterson said.
Her husband, Clay, their five children and their spouses, and their 12 grandkids have committed themselves, she said, with staying involved with Festival of Trees after she’s gone. “That will give them a reason to gather with the kids, to get together when mom’s not here anymore,” she said.
For awhile, Peterson’s cancer had gone into remission, but it came back last year with a vengeance. In July, doctors told her that her diagnosis was terminal. She said she felt like she knew that would be the case. But for her, there was also some peace in it, in part because of her contributions to the festival.
She got so involved with it, in fact, that the festival organizers made her a board member — though usually she attended meetings remotely.
“My cancer journey has been joyful because I wasn’t thinking about myself all the time,” Peterson said. “Even though this is not going to end well, I would not trade it because of what I’ve learned this past five years.”
This year’s Festival of Trees launched Tuesday evening and runs through Saturday at the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy. The location is closed to the public, who for the second year in a row can attend the festival only online, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, at FestivalofTreesUtah.org. Peterson was there in person as an honorary guest.
And she hopes in the coming years, others will be able return, too, and see her legacy.