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Longboaters make Christmas in Garden an inclusive community

Local organizations, businesses and residents share the meaning behind the trees they donated to Christmas in the Garden at Longboat Island Chapel.

Christmas in the Garden at Longboat Island Chapel
Christmas in the Garden at Longboat Island Chapel
Photo by Petra Rivera
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Every year, Longboat Island Chapel hosts Christmas in the Garden: A Celebration of Lights and Music for the holiday season. In the chapel's garden, the community of Longboat Key comes together by donating decorated Christmas trees to the chapel.

“This has grown to be so much more than I could ever imagine,” said Lesley Rife, co-chair of the event with Iris White. “The first year I did basically everything. This year, we have people calling to be a part of it. It's incredible to see how it's grown. We have also had many special events this year like an event with the Chamber and there will be a wedding here, too.”

Now in its third year, the event began on Nov. 26 and is open from 5 to 9 p.m. until Dec. 31. Select days of the season hold musical performances by different local artists including John Patti, Sarasota Academy of the Arts Chorus, Gulf Coast School of Fine Arts Fusion Jazz Group and more. 

Multiple local businesses, organizations and residents donated trees decorated in their own unique style. Businesses and organizations such as Harry’s Continental Kitchens, the Lazy Lobster, Longboat Key Garden Club, Rotary Club of Longboat Key, and the Paradise Center all donated trees tailored to their missions.

Chapel members also put out themed trees such as a U.S.A. tree and a poinsettia tree. Some families put up trees in honor of loved ones who died. Christmas in the Garden welcomes all trees, hoping to represent all the many interpretations of the holiday season. 

On Dec. 31, Christmas in the Garden invites everyone to enjoy an early New Year's Eve event with a musical performance at 4:30 p.m. by John Rinell, “The Voice of Solid Gold.” There will be complimentary appetizers. 

“People can’t get this anywhere else,” said Rife. “It is really amazing that this is Longboat's special tradition of the community coming together and sharing the holiday season with one another.”

Rife shared a couple of the trees that stood out to her. The Observer asked the decorators to explain the stories behind the trees and what it means to be a part of this special community tradition. 

Chubby’s Lounge

Owner Alan Moore said this tree is in honor of the unofficial mascots of Chubby’s: Moore’s two pet pigs. Their names are Willy and Scarlett Johamson.

Tree by Chubby's Lounge
Photo by Petra Rivera

The tree was decorated by Shelly Harrison, who volunteers in the Lord’s Warehouse. Moore said that she bought different pig themed ornaments for the tree along with putting pictures of Moore’s pigs.

“It is the perfect tree to show the community who we are and I love making Willy and Scarlett Johamson the stars,” said Moore.

Design 2000 Salon

This tree honors local Ukrainian refugees. 

Tree by Design 2000 salon
Photo by Petra Rivera

Irina Bronstein, co-owner of Design 2000 Salon, said this is the second year with this theme. Last year, Bronstein and her friend Iraida Witts, who is from Ukraine, teamed up and provided the ornaments. Each ornament is painted with Ukraine's flag colors by local children from Ukraine. 

“We really wanted this year to be a victory tree and go back to using different hair products for the salon but it hasn’t happened yet,” said Bronstein. “It always touches my heart to do anything for those local families, and they all really appreciate being represented here.”

Bronstein said that they got together again this year to retouch the ornaments.The chapel also hosted a Christmas event in the garden for local Ukrainian families. Chapel members and the families took pictures with St. Nikolai and decorated traditional Ukrainian Christmas cookies.

Follow me to Longboat Key

New Longboat residents Michele De Luce and Leighton Allenby donated two trees for the garden. They are known for their shell murals on the beach by Bay Isles Parkway.

Tree by Leighton T. Allenby MVP Realty
Photo by Petra Rivera

In honor of these shell murals, De Luce said that they spent 300 hours making bins of different shell ornaments. These ornaments went on the tree for Leighton T. Allenby MVP Realty. It was also decorated with red holiday decorations and realty-themed signs.

Their second tree is based on their Facebook page, “Follow me to Longboat Key.” Allenby and De Luce made this page to share different Longboat photos, information about making beach murals and various events to make friends on the island. 

“This awesome event provided me with a big blessing, the gift of community, especially for someone that is new to Longboat,” said De Luce.

Driftwood Beach Home and Garden

Owner Heather Rippy said she wanted to create a natural and beachy aesthetic for her tree. She and her husband decorated the tree. They used real orchids, pieces of driftwood, sand dollars and shells that her daughters painted. 

Tree by Driftwood Beach Home and Garden
Photo by Petra Rivera

“I love that all the trees in the garden are different and unique," said Rippy. "It's a great way to express who you are. It also is a very magical walk whenever we go. I love it.”

A focus on inclusion
Hanukkah tree
Photo by Petra Rivera

As a nondenominational church, the chapel dedicates a few trees to holidays besides Christmas. Rife said that last year they put up a tree with blue and white decorations to honor the Hanukkah season. They did this again this year.

“We have a few Jewish members in our church so we wanted to make sure they were represented and feel welcome in our community,” said Rife. 

Barbara Koetsier also noticed that there wasn’t a Kwanzaa tree so she took it upon herself to put it up. Claire and Rick Skerrett also helped her decorating the tree. 

Kwanzaa tree by Barbara Koetsier
Photo by Petra Rivera

“It is based on African culture so I started the tree by adding a traditional African hat,” said Koetsier. “Corn is a symbol of Kwanzaa so we have different corn ornaments and other symbols of the holiday. We also made a sign explaining the holiday to make people more aware of it.” 

Diversity and Inclusion tree
Photo by Petra Rivera

Chapel member Peggy Lammers also donated a Diverse and Inclusive tree. This tree is decorated in rainbow colors and Christmas ornaments to represent that everyone has a place to find community at the chapel.

“Many of our members come from many different backgrounds, whether that is different religions or cultures,” said Peggy Lammers. “So I thought it was very important to remind people of this during the holiday season.” 



Petra Rivera

Petra Rivera is the Longboat community reporter. She holds a bachelor’s degree of journalism with an emphasis on reporting and writing from the University of Missouri. Previously, she was a food and drink writer for Vox magazine as well as a reporter for the Columbia Missourian.

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