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Scenes from a Pandemic Holiday Road Trip


The roads were icy in Frostburg, Md. In Jolly, Texas, the mood was somber. Still, despite a season filled with challenges at every turn, by the time I got to Snowbird, Utah, it was clear that the holidays were in full swing.

After three months on the East Coast covering the final stretch of an election turned upside down by a pandemic, it was time for the long drive home to Washington State. Leaving Pennsylvania, the campaign signs fell away, and the mood lightened. I drove through Bethlehem, N.C., Antlers, Okla., and Garland, Texas, looking for signs of the season, and stopped at holiday events in Asheville, N.C., Memphis and Dallas.

Blowup snowmen boldly declared that Christmas was coming. Homes were wrapped in twinkling lights. In small towns, people cared for sick neighbors. Tourist venues, revered for their end-of-year festivities, found ways to open despite the pandemic. Living Nativities, menorah lightings and holiday music revues were held outdoors. People donned masks and came, eager to get out and participate.

Whether with help from generous donors or simply by sheer force of will, Americans across the country were closing out this tumultuous year with celebrations of joy, faith and new beginnings.

In Show Low, Ariz., Aaron Leach created a free display with 42,000 dancing lights, music and videos honoring emergency workers and veterans. “As a wildfire firefighter myself, I know what it’s like to risk my life for communities,” he said.

Farther south, in Glendale, Ariz., Rabbi Sholom Lew wheeled an eight-foot menorah into an empty parking lot for a drive-in Hanukkah celebration.

“However dark it is outside,” he said, “if we just give it some effort, each of us can create a little light and warmth in our lives.”

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Biltmore Estate, a Gilded Age mansion in the North Carolina mountains, usually has about 400,000 visitors between November and early January. This season, there will be fewer guests, but most of the 2,200 employees who were furloughed in March have returned to work.

CONOVER, N.C. — Veronica Sherrill was overwhelmed and ready for a big cry — a good cry, she said, not a sad one. Her drive-through Living Nativity performance had drawn huge crowds over nine evenings, with only one performance cut short by lightning. The show involved about half the congregation of the Oxford Baptist Church, all of whom were temperature screened before entering the building to get into costume.

Ms. Sherrill said she was humbled by its success, and said the organizers have decided to do it annually.

“A new tradition, born in Covid,” she said.

NASHVILLE — The pandemic was the city’s second tragedy this year. In March a tornado ripped through, killing 25 people and causing extensive damage. Crossroads Campus, a nonprofit organization that provides shelter and services for both at-risk youth and animals, was hit hard but recovered in time for its annual Santa Paws event. Alisha Soto, 26, came dressed in a Grinch costume. A self-described child of trauma, she was thrilled when she got a job there.

“Crossroads definitely has a way of healing you, whether you realize it or not,” she explained. “It’s been a­­­ very dark year on so many fronts, and I’m excited to turn the page, continue the healing process, and make 2021 one of the best years I’ve had so far. And just keep going.”

MEMPHIS — The Enchanted Forest and Festival of Trees exhibit, featuring vintage mechanical Christmas figures and community-decorated holiday trees, is held annually at the Pink Palace Museum to raise money for La Bonheur Childrens Hospital.

“It won’t raise what it has in the past, but we felt it was important to do it,” said Sarah Fiser, the events coordinator for La Bonheur. There were fewer trees this year, but still enough to enjoy.

Jack Schaefer, 76, dressed as Santa, sat behind a round plexiglass shield decorated to look like a snow globe as he posed with children. He sometimes asked them to speak up. “I can’t hear you through the glass,” he said.

DALLAS — The 12 Days of Christmas display came to life at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden. Visitors wove through the playful carousel displays of lords-a-leaping and ladies dancing, while children searched for cats, owls and rabbits in a scavenger hunt. Many of the guests were emergency workers and their families, courtesy of a donor to the arboretum, 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’m fortunate to be blessed with resources, and I want to make sure I share them.”

OKLAUNION, Texas — Santas popped up all along the 240 miles between Jolly and Nazareth, Texas. Outside Robert Kimbrew’s farmhouse on Route 287, two female mannequins perched atop 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 display over more than 20 years.

MAGDALENA, N.M. — Outside Winston Auto Service, in this dusty village near the Alamo Navajo reservation, employees strung lights on an old Dodge Power Wagon. Clara Winston, the owner, offered direction, her single, waist-length gray braid swinging behind her. Her husband had insisted that they get the display up early this year. The coronavirus had hit the region hard, she said, and he wanted to “get everyone’s spirits up.”

PHOENIX — Michelle Elias, 31, the stage manager turned safety compliance officer for the Phoenix Theater Company, was the last to leave after “Unwrapped,” an outdoor holiday music revue. It was the company’s first production since March. Ms. Elias now oversees the health of the cast and the cleanliness of the venue — taking temperatures, wiping doorknobs and laundering masks.

The company closed the day after the dress rehearsal of “Something Rotten,” an original musical comedy about the plague. The coronavirus vaccines that began rolling out this month are a weight off her chest, she said. “We are planning on doing ‘Something Rotten’ once we can get 30 people back in a room again singing. It will be the perfect end to this Covid journey.”

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Around sunset, a car carrying an eight-foot menorah drove into a parking lot near the State Farm Arena. Rabbi Sholom Lew and his family piled out to mount it before a drive-in Hanukkah celebration. As other vehicles joined them, Rabbi Lew, pulling a small wagon, handed out paper bags filled with doughnuts and latkes.

After he said a prayer and the candles were lit, the cars gradually pulled away and left the menorah glowing in the empty lot.

LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON, Utah — At the Snowbird Ski Resort this season, visitors are limited. Social distancing and masks are required, even with the goggles, helmets and neck gaiters that most skiers wear. Tram rides are capped at 25, and the lift is sanitized with a spray gun after every other ride. The resort easily absorbs hundreds of thousands of skiers most years. On this day, the summit was quiet and blanketed by clouds.

SEATTLE — Jessica Lowery, 36, was an intensive care unit nurse in 2009 when H1N1 hit. She remembers the fear followed by relief when the flu strain was kept under control. When she first heard about the coronavirus, she thought it would be similar. Instead, the pandemic consumed her life this past year, she said.

As a supervisor of testing sites, she was among the first at Harborview Medical Center to be vaccinated. “It’s still kind of surreal,” she said. “I didn’t realize how stressed I’ve been all year long. It gives us hope that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

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