Philadelphians won’t be crowding in between the clothing racks at Macy’s this year to see the Christmas Light Show, or lying on the floor of the Comcast Center’s lobby for the best view of its higher-tech extravaganza, the Comcast Holiday Spectacular. Children will not be squirming in their seats at the Academy of Music, awaiting the arrival of the Sugar Plum Fairy. And Macy’s Santa Claus will be online. A visit to the jolly old elf is now billed as an interactive experience, one that sounds as if they might have just put Siri in a Santa suit.
You don’t have to be Ebenezer Scrooge to be more than a little grumpy that the virus that’s spoiled so many plans in 2020 has come for holiday traditions, too.
But in the eight and a half months since their shutdown, theaters and other entertainment venues have been figuring out ways to meet us where we live — or even out in the parking lot. Maybe you didn’t have “drive-in movies will make a comeback” and “Hamilton will stream in people’s living rooms” on your list of 2020 predictions, but both those things happened. The holidays will happen, too, even if they’re not the way we’d hoped they’d be.
For example, while you can’t see the McCarter Theatre Center’s popular production of A Christmas Carol on stage in Princeton this year, or even stream it at home, you can order A Christmas Carol in a box.
Sarah Rasmussen, the new artistic director at McCarter, arrived at the theater this August after leading Minneapolis’ Jungle Theater. Even at that point, she said, the idea for some alternative to the stage version of the Charles Dickens classic “was already in the ether.”
Streaming an archived performance would raise union issues, but “was there some way to share it at home?”
What the Dickens?
“I believe it was David Thompson,” the playwright for the McCarter’s stage adaptation of A Christmas Carol, who first suggested sending people his script to read or perform at home, she said.
From there, she and others at the McCarter looked to “do that in a way that feels digestible to people,” Rasmussen said. “Some people might want to receive a whole script in the mail,” but it’s daunting to think about mounting an entire play at home, especially as large gatherings are discouraged.
“That got us thinking about how to do this on a scale that one could do this over the course of a dinner party, or over the course of a couple of nights, with family members [or] people ... in their pod or over Zoom, maybe with family or friends.”
The result: A Christmas Carol @Home, a box, available for $40 through mccarter.org, whose contents include individual scenes from A Christmas Carol, adapted from both Thompson’s version and the original story, as well as online access to McCarter’s full production script; postcards of characters for coloring, framing, or sending; and “conversation cards” that use themes from the story to encourage discussion.
Seeing A Christmas Carol is an annual tradition for many people, and “the story doesn’t change, but we change,” Rasmussen said. “It feels meaningful this year, when it’s such an extraordinarily challenging year, to encounter this beloved story about gratitude, about giving back to others, about what really matters in life. And our hope is that this is a fun, joyful, playful, meaningful way for people to spend some time together and make some memories.”
A family sighs, and adapts
Syrita Powers, of West Philadelphia, had big plans for her girls in 2020.
All three have special needs. Madison, who’s 12, has high-functioning autism, Powers said. Georgia, 10, has an intellectual disability and is nonverbal, as is Logan, 8, who has autism.
“The arts were always very important to us,” said Powers. She and her husband, Aaron, wanted to expose their children to live performances but had worried about disrupting others’ enjoyment.
The discovery of sensory-friendly performances like Pennsylvania Ballet’s helped assuage those concerns, along with their daughters’ growing maturity, she said. She told the family’s story in the Inquirer in 2018.
And now, “it was like I finally could implement some of the things” that she’d long been planning.
“This was the year we were just going to come out and do everything we could think of,” Powers said, including The Nutcracker. Seeing Pennsylvania Ballet perform two years ago had inspired Madison to take dance lessons, yet another thing the pandemic has put on hold.
“It’s been a tough year,” Powers said. She hasn’t given up on trying new things for the holidays, though. “I have a vision in mind” of turning the house into “a winter wonderland,” she said, “and I have some friends who know how to bring things to life.”
Whether or not she can pull that off for this year, “I do know that we’ll have hot chocolate and we’ll sing ... and we’ll try to make it seem normal.”
The 2020 normal
Normal, of course, is a moving target. The “new normal” of spring and summer — baking-frenzy-induced yeast shortages, pandemic puppies, and Zoom-everything — has become the enough-of-this-already normal. Cocooning has given way to claustrophobia, and that’s for the luckiest among us, who are able to keep a roof over our heads while remaining safe.
Out of respect for the nurses, doctors, and other frontline workers who are facing a grim winter as COVID-19 cases spike again, we can’t let down our guards yet.
Yes, Virginia, there’s nothing quite like gathering for live, in-person performances. But as a 2020 consolation, the internet is playing the ghost of Christmas past with virtual performances of holiday favorites to stream. Treat yourself to the best seats in your house.
And if you mask up and keep your distance, there are still opportunities to get out and about for a taste of the season, including these:
Blue Cross RiverRink Winterfest. Masks are required, tickets are limited and should be purchased in advance, as skating times are staggered to avoid crowding. Through March 7. Tickets are $5, skate rental $10. Information: delawareriverfront.com.
Rothman Orthopaedics Rink. Through Feb. 28. Tickets are $7 for adults, $5 for children 10 and younger. Skate rental is $10. Information: centercityphila.org. Reservations and tickets: rothmanrink.ticketsocket.com.
Christmas Village in Philadelphia. The European-style market will be in the City Hall courtyard and LOVE Park through Dec. 24, but expect to see half the usual number of vendors, spaced 10 feet apart for social distancing. Masks required. Food and gift vendors are in separate areas this year, and there’s a fenced-off, crowd-controlled food court in LOVE Park, with socially distanced lines to enter. Weekday shoppers should encounter even less congestion. And while there’s no Ferris wheel, the carousel is still in the courtyard. Details: philachristmas.com.
Made in Philadelphia Holiday Market. Features wares of local vendors. Through Jan. 1 at Dilworth Park on the west side of City Hall, with social distancing arrangements similar to that of the nearby Christmas Village. Details: madeinphila.com.
Winter on Broad Street: A Holiday Light Spectacular! Sponsored by Dietz & Watson, this walk-through holiday lights display should outshine that of your flashiest neighbors, with 193 light sculptures and displays — including a 25-foot reindeer — spread across more than 160,000 square feet near the Wells Fargo Center to allow for social distancing. Through Jan. 3. Tickets start at $20 for adults and $15 for children 12 and younger. Additional $15 ticket required for those who want photo with “Gritty Claus.” Reservations limited. Information: winteronbroad.com.
PFS Drive-In at the Navy Yard. The Philadelphia Film Society’s drive-in movies can accommodate up to 200 cars per screening. Attendees remain in their cars unless using a restroom, and must be masked when out of the car. Holiday programming includes screenings of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation on Dec. 3; A Christmas Story, Dec. 5; Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Dec. 12; Love Actually, Dec. 17, and Elf, Dec. 19. Tickets (sold online only): $12, $8 for PFS members, $7 for children 12 and under. Details: filmadelphia.org.
Online for the holidays
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Actor and playwright Anthony Lawton reprises the solo performance of his own adaptation of the Dickens classic for the Lantern Theater Company in partnership with Mirror Theater Company. Presentation was filmed at St. Stephen’s Theater under COVID-19 guidelines. Streaming Dec. 4-27. Tickets: $20 per household. Details: lanterntheater.org.
A Christmas Carol in Concert. A musical celebration of Dickens’ story, hosted by actor Ian Merrill Peakes. Features newly arranged 19th-century English carols, original music, and excerpts from A Christmas Carol. Filmed at People’s Light and streaming from Dec. 8-Jan. 3. Tickets: $25 per household. Information: PeoplesLight.org.
The Hip Hop Nutcracker. Olivier Award nominee Jennifer Weber cocreated, directed, and choreographed the modern-dance version, which moves the action from 18th-century Germany to 21st-century New York City, and features rapper MC Kurtis Blow. Streaming at 7 p.m. Dec. 12. Details: www.kimmelcenter.org. Tickets: $25 general admission, $55 VIP. VIP ticket holders have a 48-hour window to watch as well as access to a live postshow conversation with the show’s creators. Benefits the Kimmel’s Road to Reopening Relief Fund.
Favorites from The Nutcracker. The Philadelphia Orchestra, led by assistant conductor Erina Yashima, performs selections from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. Charlotte Blake Alston is the narrator, and Patrice Hawthorne the vocalist. Streaming at philorch.org from 8 p.m. Dec. 17 through 11 p.m. Dec. 20. Tickets: $15.
George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Not exactly like being there, but there’s no one to stop you if you want to dress up to watch. A streaming archival version of Pennsylvania Ballet’s Nutcracker will be available at paballet.org from Dec. 16-25. Tickets: $50, discounted to $25 on Christmas Eve.
A Soulful Christmas. This would have been the eighth year of the Kimmel presenting this evening of gospel music, performed by more than 800 members of the choirs of more than 20 local churches. Instead, it’s a celebration on the radio and online, as WDAS’ Patty Jackson and artistic and music director J. Donald Dumpson host a broadcast special featuring the music from past seasons, with special guest Bishop Norman Hutchins. Free. Noon-2 p.m. Dec. 20 on WDAS-FM (105.3) and on demand at kimmelcenter.org.
A Philly Pops Christmas: Spectacular Sounds of the Season. Conducted by David Charles Abell, the Pops’ Christmas extravaganza will be virtual rather than live this year, but still promises a program as delightfully over-stuffed as ever. Recorded at Wilmington’s Grand Opera House, the show features Hamilton star Mandy Gonzalez, pianist Charlie Albright, trumpeter Terell Stafford, and an impressive flock of choirs. A military-salute version of the show is expected to reach a worldwide audience of about a million servicemen and women. The digital “Spectacular” is free and available from Dec. 18 to Jan. 1 at phillypops.org.
Free New Year’s Resolution Wall. No, this isn’t a hallowed Philly tradition you’ve somehow missed. But if you formerly spent part of New Year’s Day watching the Mummers and hanging around the Kimmel on Broad Street, well, here’s your socially distanced alternative. You can post your 2021 New Year’s resolutions on social media, tagged with #KimmelResolutions2021 and they’ll be collected and shared on “multiple platforms, including the digital sign that sits atop the Kimmel Center and at kimmelcenter.org,” according to the Kimmel. With luck (and a vaccine), maybe this wall will crumble before 2022.