TAUNTON --- The First Parish Church is continuing a festive tradition this year, with around 80 Christmas trees already erected on its grounds for the annual Forest of Light display.

The holiday display, which allows for individuals and businesses to sponsor and decorate their own trees with a charitable donation, was started by the Rev. Christana McKnight in 2015 to brighten up the church grounds.

This year,  McKnight decided to add two “prayer trees” at the church’s front entrance with the intention of allowing community members to hang ribbons with short messages or prayers.

“Pray for our troops,” reads one ribbon.

“Peace on Earth,” reads another, with a peace symbol drawn next to it.

“Rest in peace Mom,” is written on a third.

McKnight emphasized the importance of prayer to both herself and her parishioners.

“I was inspired to start the prayer trees by the reading of our community prayer book during Sunday service,” said McKnight.

“There’s power in expression of writing them (prayers). When I read their prayers, they become a part of my spiritual experience.”

With plenty of space still left on the trees for other prayers, McKnight said that there are also around “a dozen” of Christmas trees left to sponsor around the church grounds. Residents can sponsor a tree for $100, with the proceeds going towards efforts to combat homelessness, including the church’s Matthew Mission.

“I got my initial inspiration for Forest of Light from both the Taunton Green and Slater Park in Pawtucket,” said McKnight.

“I also heard someone in Taunton asking why residents couldn’t play a bigger role in decorating the Green.”

Sponsors are able to decorate their trees or allow the church to decorate them for them, McKnight said. This year, both sponsors and the church are taking extra care to preserve their decorations, including laminating photos and covering trees during inclement weather.

For the third year in a row, Taunton Federal Credit Union sponsored the large tree adjacent to the church’s front doors with a donation of $1000, earning a “Shining Star” status. The tree stands over two stories tall and is currently adorned with 2,000 lights.

This year, McKnight said that she had to decrease the number of trees that were set up from one 100 to 80, in order to accommodate the family-friendly photo-op displays arranged on the grounds.

Along with other parishioners, members of the Taunton High School JROTC helped set up the entire display in one day, McKnight said, thanking them for their help.

“It was a ‘many hands make light work’ situation,” she said.

Coming off of last year’s successful Forest of Light, McKnight said that she continues to be impressed by the range of sponsors who she says represent the character of the community.

“With the trees, you get an amazing cross-section of this community, which is lovely and unexpected,” said McKnight.

“When you read the trees piece by piece, it’s the juxtaposition (of sponsors) that strikes me.”

Several individual families notably sponsored their own trees in memory of loved ones.

“Most of the time, we don’t get the back-stories; people just come with a message and decorate,” said McKnight, speaking about the open, yet simultaneously anonymous nature of sponsoring the trees.

High profile sponsors out of city hall include Mayor Thomas Hoye and City Councilors John McCaul, Barry Sanders and Donald Cleary. The tenacious and longtime candidate J.P. Marcoux also sponsored a tree.

In addition to business sponsors like Homes for our Troops and Marian Manor, local groups such as Cory’s Cause, the Taunton Area Vietnam Veterans Association and Progressive Taunton also decorated trees.

School-related sponsors included Taunton School Committee member Carol Doherty, the Friedman School, and the Leddy Preschool, which dedicated its sponsorship for the second year in a row to the memory of former librarian Noreen Harnois, who passed away last year.

Since the city’s Lights on Festival, which took place during the first weekend this month, McKnight has noted an uptick in visitors to the church grounds who come to walk through the Forest of Light display.

“Every time I come out here, I run into someone,” she said.

“One woman that I ran into said that she comes two to three times a week to engage in what she calls ‘meditative walking.’ (The stream of visitors) is an unintended positive consequence.”

With trees left to sponsor and branches left on the prayer trees to affix ribbons, McKnight said that she hopes more community members will feel inclined to contribute. Additionally, visits to the Forest display are free of charge.

Those who would like to find out more information about the Forest of Light and want to fill out a tree sponsorship form can call 508-822-2107 or visit the display’s website at http://www.firstparishtaunton.org/forest-of-light.html