Delawareans seek a return to 'normal' holiday season while pandemic concerns linger
At this time last year, the pandemic kept families separated during the holidays, postponed long-standing community gatherings, and put mall Santas at a distance.
Now, the holidays are back - to some extent - as we adjust to a “new normal” while attempting to bring back our old traditions.
Delaware Public Media’s Rebecca Baer takes a look at how Delawareans are celebrating this season as vaccines and safety measures put us at ease - but concerns remain about a new COVID variant and an uncertain economy
Right after Thanksgiving, throngs of parade-goers lined Market Street in downtown Wilmington - taking in the sound of string bands, four high school marching bands, dance troupes, and the star of the show, Santa Claus.
The annual Christmas parade organized by the Wilmington Jaycees returned after the pandemic put it on hold in 2020. An estimated 5,000 people attended.
“Definitely enjoyable to see people because for a while we didn’t see anybody, so it’s really good to see them walking around and enjoying family time,” Okorie Edwards, who was visiting from Georgia, said. “I mean, this is the stuff kids look forward to, so definitely glad they’re doing it for ‘em.”
Wilmington resident Wendy Tillman said being at the parade was extra special this year after the pandemic canceled so many community events.
“Just being out here with all the people and seeing them happy and able to stand together and play music and all that,” she said.
Parade Director Mark Oller says it was disappointing to cancel the parade last year after an uninterrupted 56-year run. As a member of the Jaycees, he’s been organizing it for 20 of those years.
“We really took it on to help make sure people knew that hey, we still have a downtown and we want people to return downtown not only for social and cultural events like this but to support downtown businesses and eateries,” he said.
Canceling last year, he says, was the right thing to do - and now, with vaccines on the scene, reviving it this year was the right thing too.
“The jaycees were very interested in bringing this back - it was a signature project - it’s a way we give back to the community so there was that strong feeling,” he said. “At the same point, again, obviously there’s a concern on public safety and that led to conversations with the mayor’s office, but given the guidance from the governor’s office we felt it was good to go ahead.”
New Castle County’s Rockwood Park and Museum also returned to a familiar holiday routine with the county bringing back another long-time tradition, its holiday open house where the evening kicked off with a tree lighting.
“There are a lot of people in our community who are doing just fine, even thriving in this COVID world in which we live, but there are a lot of people who feel left out, who don’t have jobs, who don’t have resources, that don’t have anything to do,” said New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer. “This is an opportunity to come out - it’s free - come have a good time.”
Even as a new COVID variant, Omicron, begins spreading, Meyer says it felt safe to hold the annual event because it largely takes place outdoors - making it a big departure from last year’s significantly retooled event. Carey Lockman Corbin with the New Castle County Department of Community Services explained it was mainly a drive-through light display last year.
“What’s new this year is that we have taken all the COVID precautions to bring back the things we eliminated last year; specifically pictures with Santa, and we have performances again in the carriage house, so we’re really bringing everything back,” she said.
While waiting in line with her kids to see Santa, Shaunte Thomas of New Castle, said she felt comfortable, noting that the event wasn’t too crowded and that many people, herself included, were wearing masks.
“We came here to kind of get in the Christmas spirit and feel happy and jolly, and hopefully, when we leave here the kids will be excited and looking forward to Christmas,” she said.
As for the bearded man himself? He’s vaccinated and happy to be hearing holiday wish lists first hand - unlike last year when children greeted Santa with a wave out the car window.
“This is what I like,” he said referring to the in-person visits. “They have an interaction with Santa Claus - ‘cause they’re only young once and you can only get them to believe for a little while.”
At the same time, the Salvation Army of Delaware is doing its part to make sure Santa gets to every kid’s house. But like last year, at the height of the pandemic, the organization continues to see a record level of need.
“We’ve seen more people asking for assistance this year than we did last year, which we’re kind of surprised about, but we’re in a tough economic time and so folks are really struggling,” said Major Tim Sheehan.
Sheehan said 200 more families are asking for assistance this year in Kent and Sussex Counties, 400 more than last year in New Castle County. And they’re not just struggling to put toys under the tree. Some are still struggling to pay for basic needs.
“During the pandemic, folks weren’t working so they began to fall behind in bills. Keeping the lights on became priority and other things were set aside and now we’re beginning to try to catch up on those things, so you have to make that tough decision, what gets paid today and what don’t we eat?”
The Salvation Army encourages people to make donations online - a holdover from the pandemic, but will station volunteer bell ringers outside stores. But Sheehan says there is a shortage of volunteers.
“A lot of that has to do with folks still not being 100% comfortable,” he said. “A lot of the folks who volunteered for us were of an older age, so still a little hesitant which we understand. Some of it is folks just trying to make ends meet so they don’t have the time they’ve had in the past.”
Sheehan has no doubt the organization will raise enough money to help everyone it pledged to assist. He says, every year, just in time, someone generous steps up.
Meanwhile, at the Wilmington Riverfront, a holiday tradition is put on ice. The Riverfront Development Corporation’s skating rink, which typically draws at least 17,000 skaters each season, is staying closed for another year.
“Although it’s an outside rink, all of the ticket areas and changing areas for skating are indoors in a recirculated air environment,” said Marketing Manager Joe Valenti, who added that it wouldn’t be financially feasible to open the rink to a limited number of skaters.
However, other holiday activities are scheduled at the Riverfront and trees are decked out in holiday lights -- a nod to the popular drive-through light display at the riverfront last year - An activity that won’t return because in some ways, life is starting to get back to normal.
Valenti said the space where the drive-through display was staged, a parking lot used by commuters and nearby businesses, is not available this year.
“They will actually purchase spots in that lot for their employees who, at the time last year, were all remote, are now pretty much back in the office,” he said.
Even as some return to the office, not everyone is ready to gather socially. The Queen in downtown Wilmington is a popular place to host holiday office parties. Prior to the COVID pandemic, sales director Alison Wier said it would host two or three parties a day in December, but now, business is slow.
“I would say we’re at a quarter of where we have been,” she said. “One thing I'm noticing is events are much smaller so a party that was supposed to be 200 people is now 125,” she added.
Weir thinks health concerns remain a major factor. Kevin Cameron, a member of the board of the Delaware Society for Human Resource Management, agrees but adds there may be financial considerations too.
“I have not seen as many invitations coming out. I think that’s still something people are leery of and frankly, it’s an expensive miss. If you have that party and people are not comfortable coming and now you’ve booked a place, booked a caterer and music, it’s a lot of money to put out for a party you might not have very many people attend,” he said.
“I would say we’re at a quarter of where we have been. One thing I'm noticing is events are much smaller so a party that was supposed to be 200 people is now 125.”Alison Wier, sales director at The Queen in Wilmington, on holiday party bookings
But he says camaraderie among colleagues is still strong this holiday season - even as workers remain remote.
Cameron says Zoom and Skype allow a glimpse into someone’s life that you don’t necessarily get at the office. He recalls an impromptu puppet show put on by a client’s young daughter.
“...and suddenly I see a sock puppet come up over the wall - she’s doing a play! so I think that type of stuff, you get to see people in their home, you get to see what their family is like. There’s a different connection now with our employees and with our teammates than we had before - it’s much more real and I think that some of that has been beneficial in terms of really having humanity connect,” he said.
And that’s exactly what many of us are seeking this holiday season after the isolation brought on by the pandemic - Human connection, memorable moments, and hope for a happy, healthy, and more “normal” new year.