‘Tis the season to be jolly but this year COVID-19 is causing many people in North Denver to rethink how they holiday. Traditionally, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa are times when families and friends gather for meals and parties, but the pandemic has put a damper on festivities and has made people think extra hard about the risks of gathering. With higher COVID levels in Denver and across the country, the CDC warns to consider whether the gathering is inside or outside, the number of people invited, where friends and family are traveling from, and what they’ve been up to in the previous weeks. Wearing masks, social distancing, hand washing, and Zoom also contribute to a less risky season. In North Denver, people and organizations that support the community are trying to play it safe too.
Reindeer Games Cancelled
This is not the holiday season Santa expected. “It’s really hard for Santa.” Dennis Brungardt has played the jolly old elf for 45 years in and around North Denver. But in 2020, like so many other things, Santa is sidelined. “I’ve gotten a few calls, but because of COVID-19 I really can’t have children sitting on my lap. People really love to have a picture of their little one with Santa and it’s hard to figure out how to do that distance-wise. I’m probably going to take a hiatus this year.” The 72 year old, says he is in the vulnerable zone and once caught a terrible case of the flu after being down on the ground with little kids. “Santa has to be safe this year.”
This holiday season many are trying to find ways to make the best of things. COVID has changed family and community traditions. People are scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to enjoy a festive Thanksgiving and Christmas during a pandemic. “I still have the spirit,” says Brungardt. “I’ve done this for years and years. I feed off the energy. I’m going to miss it for sure.” But Santa has a holiday message for children and adults. “Still keep believing in Santa and write your letters. Wear your mask and I’ll see you next year.”
Celebrations are Limited, but Faith is Not.
At the 122 year old, Holy Transfiguration of Christ Orthodox Cathedral in Globeville, Father David Thatcher is also struggling with how to pivot this holiday season. “Last year we instituted a Thanksgiving community meal. It was great. We normally have a blowout for Thanksgiving as well as community outreach but this year it’s a brown bag.” The church will still have services but it needs to restrict how many people can worship in the sanctuary. What’s new this year is a hallway with live streaming so people can come into the building and “sort of be together.” After the service, those who watched in the hallway can take communion. “It’s a difficult dance,” says Father Thatcher. “It’s what we are called to do before God. Be compassionate and save people’s lives.”
Christmas will also be different at the church this year. There will be services but the Christmas Eve holy supper is cancelled. There will not be the neighborhood Joy in Globeville open house either. No crafts for the kids, no singing and food, no tours of the historic church. Father Thatcher recognizes no one has control right now and puts his faith in God and the hope of eternity. “We’re all swimming in the same soup here. It’s rough. I don’t think my pain is any more than anyone else’s and probably considerably less. There’s a lot of suffering people out there. One has to have perspective. When have we lived through a plague like this?”
Non-Profit Organizations Feel the Pinch
At Bienvenidos Food Bank, executive director Gregg Pratt is trying to figure out how to fill the ever-increasing need in the community. “I feel behind on everything, because I am.” This year Bienvenidos is not trying to acquire turkeys because they believe with small gatherings the big birds won’t be necessary. Instead, they hope to give everyone a whole chicken, groceries, and a gift card. As Thanksgiving approaches, Gregg is very grateful to all those who gave to Bienvenidos but he worries folks might be tapped out. “The vast majority of fundraising comes between Thanksgiving and the end of December. We don’t know what that’s going to look like this year. Lots of givers gave in March and April and May so they may not be able to give at the end of the year.” With assistance programs coming to an end, Pratt is also concerned that smaller food banks will struggle, putting more burden on Bienvenidos to pick up the slack.
And then there’s Christmas. “Normally I would have our Christmas program planned by July but this year I’m still scrambling to make anything happen.” Pratt is hoping to create a wishlist on Amazon so Bienvenidos can give gifts this holiday season. “It’s been exhausting having to think about everything we have to do and change it or respond to everything that’s going to happen on almost a weekly basis.” Bienvenidos Food Bank is open every Thursday from 10 am to 12 pm and 3:30 to 5:30 pm through the holiday season. No one is turned down.
Restaurants Adapt to Smaller Groups
Restaurants that are used to busy holiday seasons are also having to change their business models this year. At the Bindery in Highland, Shannon McIntyre, says they’re open for in-person dining but also expect to have a specialty menu for Thanksgiving that people can pick up to enjoy in the comfort of their home. “It’s going to be structured so it’s better to take home. Pick up, set a temp on your oven and heat up. That’s much different from last year.”
Ian Niedzwiedz at Il Porcellino Salumi in Berkeley says “be in the best positive spirits and that’s what’s going to get us through it.” Usually the restaurant caters a lot of family gatherings. This season they will offer grab and go meals like they did in the spring. Instead of selling 8 to 10 pound hams during the holidays they are going with two to three pound hams for smaller gatherings. “We’d love for everyone to come and support small businesses and spread the word for other small businesses so everyone has a fighting chance to get through the winter and not have to close our doors.”
At Firenze de Tavola, downstairs from Parisi on Tennyson Street, owner Christina Parisi is making plans then re-evaluating everything. Her idea was to open Firenze in early November for small holiday gatherings but now she is thinking of waiting until restrictions ease. “We’ll keep adapting, that’s the most we can do. I’m learning something every day about an industry that I’ve been in for 22 years.” Firenze de Pavola has been closed since COVID broke out in the spring. In previous years, the downstairs part of Parisi hosted 30 holiday gatherings a year, sometimes with 55 to 60 guests. Now she’s trying to figure out how to reopen when she can only serve groups of 8 with no mingling between tables. “We have had numerous inquiries. Standard response is we would love to go ahead and put together a tentative budget and plan but of course we are limited by restrictions of the moment.”
Christina is determined her guests feel the holiday spirit. “I’ve already set up my florist. I need to keep this place feeling somewhat normal. We’re planning on putting up the garlands and putting up the lights. If we get to the point of heating our tent I’m planning on putting up a Christmas tree to make it more festive. I need soft reminders that everything is feeling okay.”
Small Businesses Encourage Online Holiday Shopping
Retailers are also having to get creative this holiday season. At the Book Bar on Tennyson Street, owner Nicole Sullivan, says unlike previous years when the shop was full of browsers, this year she has to limit people in the store to 10 including staff. Nicole is asking customers to do their holiday shopping online as much as possible and pick up books at the curbside window. If folks do want to come inside the store, reservations are requested, and guests are asked to fill out the form so her team can do pre-shopping for those who don’t want to spend lots of time in the store. “For Christmas we would have Christmas themed storytime, Santa storytime. None of those things are happening this year. We would host holiday parties but this year we’re focusing on book sales primarily.”
“We’re working on putting together some gift bundling where we have different themes. Book Bar Bundles. All bundles we’re pairing a wine or a beer with a cookbook and a book. That’s a holiday thing.” In addition there will be a Christmas book catalog that will go out with every edition of The Denver North Star so customers can start thinking about their book buys.
Book Bar’s philanthropic arm, Book Give, is hosting a community book giveaway at the service station at 49th and Lowell on Small Business Saturday, November 29. People who might be struggling this year are invited to come by and do some holiday “shopping.” “I think customers are so happy to get out of their house and be able to get back in a store and browse books in a safe way. We get a lot of messages from folks thanking us for not giving up.”
Families Downsize Holiday Feasts
The holidays are going to be different for the Baca family of North Denver too. They have been living in Berkeley for over 30 years. Jim and Hazel, both in their 70’s, come from large Hispanic families. Jim has five brothers and four living sisters. They lost Jane in 1987. Hazel has two brothers and seven sisters. Between the two of them they have five kids and 13 grandkids. Almost everyone is living in the Denver area. “On the holidays we’ve always had an open door policy and tell folks if you want to come over we’ll be here all day but now we’re keeping it to the immediate family.”
One of Hazel’s Thanksgiving traditions is to make pumpkin pies the night before Thanksgiving and take them to neighbors and family. “It’s our get together. The kids hang out pretty much all day.” But this year she has decided not to make so many because COVID has made people reluctant to accept homemade food. Even so, she’s still baking pies and making holiday meals with all the fixins for Thanksgiving and Christmas, turkey for Thanksgiving and rib roast and ham for Christmas brunch.
This year Jim and Hazel will be surrounded by those who have been in their bubble since “this thing started.” Although the holidays will be different, Hazel says you have to count your blessings. “I would imagine for a lot of people it will be less festive. For us, Christmas is about the kids and the grandkids so that’s going to make it good for us. You just have to think positive and hopefully this thing will start slowing down. You got to be safe. Just watch what you’re doing and try to stay home as much as possible.”