The streets in Frostburg, Md., Were icy. In Jolly, Texas, the mood was gloomy. Despite a season full of challenges at every turn, it was clear the vacation was in full swing when I arrived in Snowbird, Utah.
After three months on the east coast over the final stretch of an election turned on its head by a pandemic, it was time for the long drive home to Washington State. When they left Pennsylvania, the campaign signs fell away and the mood improved. I drove through Bethlehem, NC, Antlers, Okla. And Garland, Texas looking for signs of the season, stopping at vacation events in Asheville, NC, Memphis, and Dallas.
Blowup Snowmen boldly declared that Christmas was coming. The houses were shrouded in twinkling lights. In small towns, people took care of sick neighbors. Tourist spots revered for their year-end celebrations found ways to open up despite the pandemic. Living nativity scenes, menorah lights and Christmas music revues were held outdoors. People put on masks and came to get off and participate.
With the help of generous donors or simply out of sheer willpower, Americans across the country ended this tumultuous year with celebrations of joy, faith, and new beginnings.
In Show Low, Arizona, Aaron Leach created a free display of 42,000 dancing lights, music, and videos in honor of rescue workers and veterans. “As a devastating firefighter, I know what it is like to risk my life for communities,” he said.
Farther south, in Glendale, Arizona, Rabbi Sholom Lew rolled a three meter menorah into an empty parking lot for Hanukkah.
“No matter how dark it is outside,” he said, “if we just try a little, each of us can create a little light and warmth in our lives.”
ASHEVILLE, NC – The Biltmore Estate, a gilded-age mansion in the mountains of North Carolina, typically has about 400,000 visitors between November and early January. There will be fewer guests this season, but most of the 2,200 employees who were on leave in March have returned to work.
3rd of December
CONOVER, N.C. – Veronica Sherrill was overwhelmed and ready for a big scream – a good scream, she said, not a sad one. Her drive-through performance of Living Nativity had attracted large crowds over nine evenings, with only one performance being interrupted in a flash. The show featured about half of the Oxford Baptist Church congregation, all of whom were temperature tested to disguise themselves before entering the building.
Ms. Sherrill said she was humble about the success and the organizers decided to do it annually.
“A new tradition born in Covid,” she said.
NASHVILLE – The pandemic was the city’s second tragedy this year. A tornado ripped through in March, killing 25 people and causing great damage. Crossroads Campus, a nonprofit that provides shelter and services to both vulnerable youth and animals, was badly hit but recovered in time for the annual Santa Paws event. Alisha Soto, 26, came in a Grinch costume. As a self-described trauma child, she was thrilled when she got a job there.
“Crossroads definitely has a way to heal you whether you know it or not,” she explained. “It’s been a very dark year on so many fronts and I look forward to turning the page, continuing the healing process, and making 2021 one of the best years I’ve had so far. And just keep going.”
6th of December
MEMPHIS – The Enchanted Forest and Festival of Trees exhibition, featuring mechanical Christmas figurines and community-decorated Christmas trees, is held annually at the Pink Palace Museum to raise funds for La Bonheur Childrens Hospital.
“It won’t increase what it has in the past, but we felt it was important to do so,” said Sarah Fiser, La Bonheur’s event coordinator. There were fewer trees this year, but still enough to enjoy.
Jack Schaefer, 76, dressed as Santa Claus, was sitting behind a round plexiglass sign that was decorated to look like a snow globe when he posed with children. He sometimes asked her to speak. “I can’t hear you through the glass,” he said.
DALLAS – The 12-day Christmas exhibition came to life at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden. Visitors meandered through the playful carousel displays of Lords-a-Jumping and dancing ladies, while children went on a scavenger hunt for cats, owls and rabbits. Many of the guests were rescue workers and their families, courtesy of an arboretum donor, Dan Patterson.
“People have suffered financially. Seeing long lines at grocery banks on the front cover of the Dallas Morning News reminded me of the Great Depression and I thought that just can’t happen here, ”he said. “I am fortunate to have resources and I want to make sure I share them.”
OKLAUNION, Texas – Santa Clauses showed up on the 240 miles between Jolly and Nazareth, Texas. Outside Robert Kimbrew’s farmhouse on Route 287, two female mannequins on an old green convertible, wearing only Christmas bows and Christmas hats, stopped traffic. He joked that at least a million people photographed his annual exhibition for more than 20 years.
9th of December
MAGDALENA, N.M. – Outside Winston Auto Service, in this dusty village near the Alamo Navajo reservation, staff set fire to an old Dodge Power Wagon. Clara Winston, the owner, gave the direction, her single hip-length gray braid swinging behind her. Her husband had insisted that she put the display up earlier this year. The coronavirus has hit the region hard, she said, and he wanted to “improve everyone’s mood”.
PHOENIX – Michelle Elias, 31, the stage manager who was named safety officer for the Phoenix Theater Company, was the last to leave after “Unwrapped,” an outdoor vacation music revue. It was the company’s first production since March. Ms. Elias now monitors the health of the occupation and the cleanliness of the venue – measuring temperatures, wiping doorknobs and washing masks.
The company closed the day after the dress rehearsal of Something Rotten, an original musical comedy about the plague. The coronavirus vaccines launched this month are a weight off her chest, she said. “We plan to do Something Rotten as soon as we have 30 people back in a room singing again. It will be the perfect end to this Covid journey. “
GLENDALE, Arizona – Towards sunset, a car with a ten foot menorah pulled into a parking lot near the State Farm Arena. Rabbi Sholom Lev and his family piled up to climb it before a drive-in Hanukkah celebration. When other vehicles came to them, Rabbi Lev, who was pulling a small cart, was handing out paper bags of donuts and latkes.
After he said a prayer and lit the candles, the cars gradually drove away and lit the menorah on the empty property.
LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON, Utah – The Snowbird Ski Resort has limited attendance this season. Social distancing and masks are required, even with the goggles, helmets, and neck gaiters that most skiers wear. Tram rides are limited to 25, and the elevator is cleaned with a spray gun after every other trip. The resort easily accepts hundreds of thousands of skiers for most years. That day the summit was calm and covered with clouds.
SEATTLE – Jessica Lowery, 36, was an intensive care nurse in 2009 when H1N1 met. She remembers the fear followed by relief when the flu was kept under control. When she first heard about the coronavirus, she thought it would be similar. Instead, the pandemic cost her life last year, she said.
As head of testing sites, she was one of the first at Harborview Medical Center to be vaccinated. “It’s still surreal,” she said. “I didn’t know how stressed I was all year round. It gives us hope that there will be light at the end of the tunnel.”