The roads were icy in Frostburg, Maryland. In Jolly, Texas, the mood was dark. Yet despite a season filled with challenges at every turn, by the time I arrived in Snowbird, Utah, it was clear the vacation was in full swing.
After three months on the East Coast covering the home stretch of a pandemic-shattered election, it was time for the long drive back to Washington state. As we left Pennsylvania, the campaign signs fell and the mood lightened. I traveled through Bethlehem, North Carolina, Antlers, Oklahoma, and Garland, Texas, looking for signs of the season, and stopped at vacation events in Asheville, NC, Memphis, and Dallas.
Blowup Snowmen have boldly declared that Christmas is approaching. The houses were enveloped in twinkling lights. In small towns, people took care of sick neighbors. Tourist spots, revered for their year-end festivities, have found ways to open up despite the pandemic. Living nativity scenes, menorah lighting and holiday music revues were held outside. People put on masks and came eager to come out and participate.
Whether with the help of generous donors or just out of sheer will, Americans across the country closed this tumultuous year with celebrations of joy, faith and new beginnings.
In Show Low, Arizona, Aaron Leach created a free display with 42,000 dancing lights, music and videos honoring rescuers and veterans. “As a forest firefighter myself, I know what it’s like to risk my life for communities,” he said.
Further south in Glendale, Ariz., Rabbi Sholom Lew drove an eight-foot menorah into an empty parking lot for a Hanukkah celebration by car.
“As dark as it is outside,” he said, “if we just give it a little effort, each of us can create a little light and warmth in our lives.”
ASHEVILLE, NC – The Biltmore Estate, a golden age mansion in the mountains of North Carolina, typically welcomes around 400,000 visitors between November and early January. This season there will be fewer guests, but most of the 2,200 employees who were on leave in March have returned to work.
CONOVER, NC – Veronica Sherrill was overwhelmed and ready for a loud cry – a good cry, she said, not a sad cry. His performance behind the wheel of Living Nativity had drawn huge crowds for nine evenings, with only one performance interrupted by lightning. The show involved around half of the Oxford Baptist Church congregation, all of whom were temperature checked before entering the building to dress up.
Ms Sherrill said she was in awe of its success and said the organizers decided to do it every year.
“A new tradition, born at Covid,” she says.
NASHVILLE – The pandemic was the city’s second tragedy this year. In March, a tornado struck, killing 25 people and causing extensive damage. Crossroads Campus, a non-profit organization that provides shelter and services to youth and animals at risk, was hit hard but recovered in time for its annual Santa Paws event. Alisha Soto, 26, came dressed in a Grinch costume. A self-proclaimed child of trauma, she was elated when she found a job there.
“Carrefour definitely has a way to heal you whether you realize it or not,” she explained. “It has been a very dark year on so many fronts, and I am delighted to turn the page, continue the healing process and make 2021 one of the best years I have seen so far. And just keep going.
MEMPHIS – The Enchanted Forest and Festival of Trees exhibit, featuring vintage mechanical Christmas figurines and community decorated Christmas trees, is held annually at the Rose Palace Museum to raise funds for the La Bonheur children’s hospital.
“It won’t improve what he’s done in the past, but we felt it was important to do it,” said Sarah Fiser, events coordinator for La Bonheur. There were fewer trees this year, but still enough to enjoy.
Jack Schaefer, 76, dressed as Santa Claus, sat behind a round plexiglass shield decorated to resemble a snow globe as he posed with children. He sometimes asked them to speak. “I can’t hear you through the window,” he said.
DALLAS – The 12 Days of Christmas presentation came to life at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden. Visitors walked the playful carousels of jumping lords and dancing ladies, while children searched for cats, owls and rabbits on a scavenger hunt. Many of the guests were rescuers and their families, thanks to arboretum donor Dan Patterson.
“People have suffered financially. Seeing long lines at food banks on the front page of the Dallas Morning News reminded me of the Great Depression, and I thought it just can’t happen here, ”he said. “I am fortunate to have resources and I want to make sure I share them.”
OKLAUNION, Texas – Santas have appeared all along the 240 miles between Jolly and Nazareth, Texas. Outside Robert Kimbrew’s farm on Route 287, two female mannequins perched on top of an old green convertible – wearing only Christmas bows and Santa hats – stopped traffic. He joked that at least a million people had photographed his annual exhibit for more than 20 years.
MAGDALENA, NM – Outside Winston Auto Service, in this dusty village near the Alamo Navajo reservation, employees turned on lights on an old Dodge Power Wagon. Clara Winston, the owner, offered the direction, her single waist-length gray braid swaying behind her. Her husband had insisted they set up the display earlier this year. The coronavirus had hit the region hard, she said, and he wanted “to cheer everyone up.”
PHOENIX – Michelle Elias, 31, the production manager who became head of safety compliance for the Phoenix Theater Company, was the latest to leave after “Unwrapped,” an outdoor vacation music magazine. It was the company’s first production since March. Ms. Elias now oversees the health of the actors and the cleanliness of the venue – taking temperatures, wiping doorknobs and washing masks.
The company closed its doors the day after the dress rehearsal for “Something Rotten,” an original plague musical. The coronavirus vaccines that began rolling out this month are a burden on her chest, she said. “We’re planning on doing something rotten once we can get 30 people back to a room to sing again. It will be the perfect end to this Covid journey. “
GLENDALE, Arizona – Around sunset, a car carrying an eight-foot menorah entered a parking lot near the State Farm Arena. Rabbi Sholom Lew and his family gathered to ride it before a Hanukkah celebration by car. As other vehicles joined them, Rabbi Lew, pulling a small wagon, handed out paper bags filled with donuts and latkes.
After he said a prayer and the candles lit, the cars gradually pulled away and let the menorah shine in the empty lot.
LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON, Utah – At Snowbird Ski Resort this season, visitors are limited. Social distancing and masks are necessary, even with the goggles, helmets and neck protectors that most skiers wear. Tram rides are capped at 25 and the elevator is disinfected with a spray gun after every other ride. The resort easily absorbs hundreds of thousands of skiers in most years. The summit was calm and cloudy that day.
SEATTLE – Jessica Lowery, 36, was a nurse in the intensive care unit in 2009 when the H1N1 virus struck. She remembers the fear followed by relief when the flu strain was brought under control. When she first heard of the coronavirus, she thought it would be similar. Instead, the pandemic consumed her life last year, she said.
As a test site supervisor, she was among the first at Harborview Medical Center to be vaccinated. “It’s always a bit surreal,” she says. “I didn’t realize how stressed I had been all year. It gives us hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.