Socially Distant Santa: As COVID persists, so do the holidays

With COVID-19 maintaining its hold as the year draws to a close, it almost seems quaint how some once hoped the pandemic would subside by Easter. But as cases and death counts continued to rise, holiday and festival celebrations further into the year tumbled like dominos: the Tucson Festival of Books, the Fourth Avenue Street Fair, the All Souls Procession, and even the downtown Parade of Lights, the Oro Valley Holiday Drive-thru and Winterhaven Festival of Lights all cancelled.

Beyond public events, health departments even advised against large indoor gatherings during the winter holidays. For many, it’s an isolating end to an already difficult year. But for others, it’s an opportunity to find a way to stay safe – and salvage the holidays. 

Patrick Cunningham transforms himself into Santa each holiday season, and has done so for more than three decades. He’s known around Tucson for being Santa in the Parade of Lights, and on his sled at Main Gate Square on University Blvd. each December. It’s a complete wardrobe: the white beard, the velvet bag, the colorful rings, and the red truck with a ST NICK license plate. But this year, the outfit also includes a medical mask.

“From the get-go, I knew I wouldn’t do Santa this year if it wasn’t safe,” Cunningham said. “And honestly, my heart was just shattered. There was a deep sadness at the prospect.”

Cunningham wasn’t alone in his safety concerns, both for himself and the community.

Every December, the Tucson Botanical Gardens hosts their largest event, Luminaria Nights. During this holiday celebration, the gardens are illuminated by thousands of paper lanterns and holiday decorations, and also feature jazz bands and carolers. The event averages 1,300 attendees per night. But this year, after months of closure and losing the bulk of their guest traffic, TBG staff were unsure if the event would happen at all.

“Luminaria Nights always seems to be a yearlong process of planning,” said Rob Elias, TBG’s director of marketing and communications. “We knew we couldn’t put on the same type of experience for the guests we did in the past. But we wanted to still do something that would make things special.”

For TBG, the answer was to redesign the event’s form, but keep the function. They announced Winter “Wanderland,” a socially distanced event where guests can still stroll through the gardens and enjoy the luminaria lanterns, but there are no live performers or holiday food samples. As opposed to musicians playing Christmas standards throughout the park, holiday music was broadcast courtesy of KXCI radio.

“Instead of having people gather in a single specific spot, we tried to make an experience for our guests that permitted them to enjoy a nice wander through the gardens, and we think we achieved that goal,” Elias said. “We are requiring masks in the garden, and honestly that’s something we were concerned with at the beginning. We didn’t know how people would feel about it. Some people don’t like it, and if they’d like to come back to the garden, they can do so when we no longer require masks.”

Reworking the holiday event led to the gardens utilizing an online ticketing system – a tool they’ve never used before. Thanks to online ticketing, TBG can calculate exactly how many people will be in the park at a time, create time slots to lower capacity, and avoid crowds gathering at the ticket counter. As a result, Winter Wanderland saw only a fifth of the usual attendees at any given time.

“The guests have been very accepting and enthusiastic,” Elias said. “Even though we’ve had sold-out nights where we couldn’t accept any more people in the gardens, people are understanding. It’s been heartwarming and exciting for us to see that guests still have that holiday feeling in their hearts.”

For the Tucson Jewish Community Center, removing in-person events posed a similarly existential threat – how can you be a community center without a physical location for the community to gather? Luckily, the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur earlier in the year meant the JCC had plenty of practice leading into December.

“We had a template for Hanukkah because we’d already been through some of the major holidays earlier in the year,” said Khylie Gardner, JCC’s director of marketing and communications. “As things shifted, we hoped case numbers would be down in December and we’d be able to have the community gather here. But as cases rose in town, we realized it wouldn’t be a responsible thing for us to do.”

The JCC’s Hanukkah event was virtual, but still included multiple activities. The Family Latke Challenge encouraged families to cook in their homes while listening to the story of Hanukkah. The Engineer Your Own Dreidel was an online workshop that showed how to create dreidels using everyday materials. Even the JCC’s annual Hot Chocolate Run went virtual, and took place over all eight days of Hanukkah. During these, the JCC did continue to provide in-person childcare. 

Because of the success and expanded reach of their virtual events, the JCC is already planning virtual events for the future, such as their Amplifying Voices series, which seeks to explore the intersectional relationship between Black and Jewish identities, and their 30th annual Tucson International Jewish Film Festival, which is going entirely online. Because of the online platform, the film festival’s tickets are selling  better than in years past. 

“The main thing we’ve learned is that the role of the J in the community is to be a resource and to help people connect in the way that works for them,” Gardner said. “And I think that’s always been true, but this year especially we’ve realized we have a responsibility to keep people engaged, either physically, mentally or spiritually. It’s different, but we’ve had the opportunity to get really innovative with how we’d engage with the community.” 

For Cunningham, the answer of how to safely reclaim his role as Santa at Main Gate Square turned out to be right in front of him. Alongside his Santa attire, Cunningham owns multiple snowglobes, and has loved them since he was a child. 

“It was like a light went off, I thought ‘I can be in a snowglobe, of course!’,” Cunningham said. “Part of my tradition as Santa is a sense of magic, wonder and hope. And I’m seeing all these plastic dividers and wondering how I can implement them in a way that still has that magic and wonder. Then I realized the answer was right in front of my face this whole time… You can be innovative and creative, and still be safe. I think it’s a false dichotomy, that you can only be on the side of public health, or the economy. Or public health, and the holidays.”

Cunningham proposed the snowglobe idea to the Marshall Foundation, which owns and manages most of the real estate in Main Gate Square, and they quickly created one. While the snowglobe paneling does protect against COVID like standard acrylic dividers, it also provides an opportunity for decoration. The Marshall Foundation even added jets to shoot out fake snow as children and families pose with their Santa in a snowglobe. 

“Santa’s message has always been one of hope, but this year, it’s also one of perseverance and to have a heart that believes better days are ahead,” Cunningham said. “Most years, kids ask for a long list of very high-priced electronics. But this year, more than any other time I’ve been Santa, the majority of kids are asking for health, a return to normalcy, for hand sanitizer, and for people to be safe. It really is powerful.” 

Thanks to this ingenuity, families were still able to gather – in socially distant lines – every Sunday through December in Main Gate Square to tell Santa what they want for Christmas as in years past. In fact, the demand was so great the line formed even before Cunningham arrived, sporting a specially made candy-cane patterned mask with a transparent front so children can still see Santa’s smile. 

“Even though this year is different than ever before,” Cunningham addressed the line of families, “We’re going to get through it with love and with hope.”

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