Matt Pease helps Linda Marie load a Christmas tree into the back of her car at the Belfast Soup Kitchen on Thursday. The soup kitchen is giving away over 120 free Christmas trees donated by local businesses to brighten people's holiday seasons. Credit: Kay Neufeld / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — For the first time, the Belfast Soup Kitchen is giving away Christmas trees and wreaths to clients who might not otherwise have the symbols of the Christian holiday.

That’s thanks to donations from Plants Unlimited in Rockport and Murphy’s Christmas Tree & Wreath Stand in Belfast, who heard the soup kitchen might be interested in helping to distribute them.

“With the rising cost of everything. Having to maybe choose between food or fuel, or Christmas trees, that choice is easy,” said Cherie Merrill, executive director of the soup kitchen.

It’s helped locals like Linda Marie of Belfast, who rifled through the last couple dozen trees after finishing her lunch at the soup kitchen on Thursday.

Marie hasn’t purchased a real tree in four years because of how expensive they’ve gotten. Alongside paying her bills, Christmas presents for her great grandchildren are far more important, she said. Instead, Marie has been using a two-foot-tall table top artificial tree. But Marie said she has missed the real trees – their aroma, the nostalgia of her childhood and all the room for her many ornaments.

“It’s about the magic,” she said.

This year, Christmas trees are more expensive and harder to find due to the lingering effects of the 2008 recession, according to the Maine Christmas Tree Association. That’s coupled with costs of living continuing to increase, leaving some locals without extra funds as they struggle to pay their bills and put food on the table.

Linda Marie was excited to pick out a free Christmas tree at the Belfast Soup Kitchen on Thursday. Marie loves the way the soup kitchen cares for the community it has created. Credit: Kay Neufeld / BDN

When Plants Unlimited owner Hammon Buck found himself with more than 600 unsold trees this season, he began donating them to organizations around Knox and Waldo counties. More than 120 trees went to the soup kitchen after Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley suggested donating some to there.

Murphy’s Christmas Tree & Wreath Stand also donated 51 wreaths last week.

The Belfast Soup Kitchen has left the wreaths and trees outside of its new building for anyone to grab, no strings attached.

Marie was excited to bring home a tree for her young great-grandchildren to celebrate early next week. And she’s grateful for the way the community organization continues to care for her and the friends she’s made there.

“It just adds to the joy. It’s so wonderful that people go out of their way to add to everyone’s Christmas like that,” Marie said.

Soup kitchen regular Matt Pease helped Marie load the tree into her car.

For those without transportation, there’s help getting trees home too, soup kitchen coordinator Maria Jacobs said. After a community member said he’d try to hook a trailer to the back of his bike, volunteer Deb Fournier stepped up and donated her time and truck to help people get their trees home.

It doesn’t matter if someone regularly goes to the soup kitchen, can’t afford a tree, or simply can’t find one, Merrill said. Anyone is welcome to take a tree.

Merill said the tree giveaway is just one part of what the soup kitchen is doing to brighten people’s holiday seasons. The organization has also prepared and given away Christmas meal boxes with turkeys. And on Thursday, the Belfast Soup Kitchen collaborated with Artivism in Maine, Literacy Volunteers and Community Food for Children to deliver Christmas boxes full of toys, snacks, clothes and books for children from low-income families across Belfast.

“We’re not just about food, it’s about community … We want everybody to feel welcome here,” Merrill said.