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‘We’re looking for the Christmas spirit’: This year, the pandemic isn’t dampening Center City holiday revelry

A season many people thought would have new hope and freedom remains infused with the pandemic's signature uncertainty. This weekend, the Christmas Village brought a chance to feel something normal.

People browse and shop at Christmas Village at LOVE Park in Philadelphia on Saturday.
People browse and shop at Christmas Village at LOVE Park in Philadelphia on Saturday.Read moreTHOMAS HENGGE / Staff Photographer

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas — and not the 2020 version.

Crowds are filling the Christmas Village, no social distancing in sight. People are smiling, maskless, in front of City Hall’s sparkling tree. They’re holding hands at Dilworth Park’s ice rink and eating bratwurst in LOVE Park.

With the pandemic’s second holiday season underway, familiar scenes — and crowds — have returned to Philadelphia. On Saturday, people were out finding a holiday spirit they’d been long awaiting.

“This year, we’re actually able to get out and enjoy Christmas,” said Mari-Ashli Foy, 31, who was strolling hand-in-hand through the Dilworth Park Wintergarden with Andrae Wiggins, 35.

Their visit was the first festive thing they’ve done this year, the couple said. And if it didn’t feel exactly normal, it was close enough.

“We’re in a state of ambiguity,” Wiggins said. “It seems like it’s never-ending. But we’re just kind of used to it, I suppose.”

“We’ve learned to adapt,” Foy added.

With two weeks until Christmas, a season many thought would be marked by new hope and freedom remains infused with the signature uncertainty of the pandemic. In the last two weeks, coronavirus cases have spiked and the omicron variant has arrived, throwing a wrench into the pandemic recovery just in time to put a potential damper on holiday planning. That’s along with inflation, supply-chain issues, and shipping delays.

Philadelphia’s health commissioner has advised residents to reconsider holding gatherings and bring together no more than three households indoors at once. With early indications that omicron could be fast-spreading and needs three vaccine doses to protect against it, public health officials have asked everyone to get vaccinated against the coronavirus and get booster shots.

» READ MORE: Pa. COVID-19 hospitalizations are at their highest level since January, with spikes in central and western regions

But for many out and about in Center City this weekend, the unending nature of the pandemic was a reason to seek joy — and to revel in the differences from 2020, when vaccinations hadn’t yet begun for the general population. They were seeking a feeling of normalcy and hoping holiday cheer would prove contagious.

In front of the giant Christmas tree, University of Delaware students Shannon Keller, Lauren Ingersoll, and Haley Prem posed for a photo together. They had driven to Philadelphia to spend the day at the Christmas Village.

“We just wanted to do something cute and festive,” said Ingersoll.

“And we’re looking for the Christmas spirit,” added Keller.

Between school and the pandemic, it hasn’t really felt like Christmas, the three said. But now they were beaming in front of the Christmas tree, ready to shop for holiday gifts and take a break from studying.

Saturday’s damp weather and balmy winds didn’t mute the cheery mood — people milling about in sweaters and hats, the aroma of mulled wine wafting from mugs, vendors’ booths teeming with shoppers.

“It’s definitely a comeback,” said Cirese Clindinin from her busy skin-therapy booth in Dilworth Park’s Made in Philadelphia Holiday Market.

Last year, Dilworth Park and the Christmas Village both opened, with special social-distancing and other pandemic measures, but it wasn’t the usual extravaganza. Business was slow, recalled Clindinin, who has had a booth selling her creams, candles, serums, and more for six years.

Now, it’s booming — doing even better than before the pandemic, though it’s harder to find people to work. People are “totally” in the holiday spirit, she said — and “they’re ready to spend money.”

“The energy’s good,” she said as she wrapped a citrus-and-sage soap bar in pink tissue paper for a customer. She motioned outside. “When I feel like I need a little bit of holiday, I just look at the tree.”

» READ MORE: Philadelphia Ballet charms with the return of ‘Nutcracker’ to the Academy of Music

At the Lion’s Den Candle Co., owner Jacob Anthony agreed: Business was going very well. He didn’t have previous years to compare it with, though — his business was born during the pandemic.

When he started working from home in 2020, he picked up candlemaking as a pandemic hobby. This summer, he quit his job to run the business full time. His stand in Dilworth Plaza near the Christmas tree is his first retail space.

“It feels good,” said Anthony, 34, of Wayne, “and it’s nerve-racking.”

At lunchtime in LOVE Park, a line 50 deep stretched in front of the stand serving German bratwurst.

Mouths full of the pork sausage, the Abbate family of Downingtown stood around a bench eating. They were planning to walk around the village and then go get their Christmas tree.

The visit was special for Anika Abbate, 46, who is from Germany — it’s the third year she and husband Joe have brought their kids, 9 and 11, to experience a traditional Christmas market. And it’s “pretty authentic,” she said.

They were happy to be back this year.

“It’s nice to be able to come here, be outside, and do something close to normal,” Abbate said. “So [we’re] being hopeful.”