Russ Brown usually sells his fine art landscape photography at upwards of 50 art shows a year, but the coronavirus canceled them all. The city’s Christmas Village in LOVE Park is now his only event, and he is remaining hopeful the holiday spirit will bring people out to shop.
“Being separated for so long, and not working for so long in this capacity, you feel a little bit depressed about things,” said Brown, the owner of Russ Brown Photography, which is also located in Reading Terminal Market. “Today, when you look around, the Christmas trees are up, the lights are up, people are walking around. ... It’s starting to feel like Christmas again.”
As coronavirus cases surge in the region, prompting city officials to impose a new set of restrictions, the annual Christmas Village opened Saturday for a preview, aiming to bring much-needed financial relief to local vendors and spark some holiday cheer for Philadelphians who may worry there isn’t much to look forward to this season.
“It’s hard times right now,” said Tobias Fischer, a Christmas Village spokesperson. “We just hope that it’s a little bit more festive, and that people see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
The pandemic and related shutdowns have crippled small businesses and disproportionately hit people in industries like retail and restaurants. Though Christmas Village at LOVE Park has only about 40 vendors this year, half its usual size, it is still providing those businesses with an opportunity to sell food, art, gifts, and other items in person when it has been hard to reach customers safely.
The holiday season usually brings in the best sales of the year for retail companies, and local vendors are hoping Christmas Village gives them that boost.
“This has been huge for us,” said Don Shump, the owner of Philadelphia Bee Co., one of the Christmas Village vendors who said many of the shops where he usually sells jars of honey closed this year. “It’s Christmas, everyone is trying to make ends meet, especially in these circumstances.”
They are also trying to meet public health guidelines. Christmas Village organizers spent weeks measuring a 10-foot distance between booths, creating one-way walkways, putting up signs, and creating a crowd-controlled food court where people are only permitted to remove their masks to eat at a socially distanced table. There are also ambassadors throughout the village to make sure everyone is following the rules.
“It feels lovely to be like, ‘Hi, how are you?’ and interact with people when we aren’t doing that so much these days,” said Jennifer Hombach, a salesperson at Chopstick Art, one of the Christmas Village vendors. “It’s just pleasant to be out in the world.”
Christian McDonald, head of sales at family-owned Cynful Bliss, thinks the company’s alcohol-infused desserts can bring people comfort from anxiety caused by being stuck at home, protests, and the pandemic.
“Thank you for supporting your local BLB,” McDonald said to a customer Saturday, referencing that the dessert company is a Black-owned business. McDonald thinks more people are seeking out Black-owned businesses to support, and hopes this holiday setup outside City Hall will bring in new customers.
“It’s harder for us to get a leg up in a lot of situations,” McDonald said. “With the climate of the world today, [people are] realizing it’s a problem and trying to do the best to help. ... I just want everyone to stay as safe as they possibly can, while supporting as many small businesses as they possibly can, so they don’t go under.”
On holiday weekends in previous years, Piggyback Treats Co., which makes pet snacks, would participate in three to five events on any given weekend. For this holiday season, salesperson Estelle Vincent said they are just doing two events, including Christmas Village in LOVE Park.
“Christmas Village, traditionally, is a big chunk of our income for the whole year, so we greatly depend on Christmas Village,” said Vincent. It “gives these small businesses the opportunity to say: ‘Hi, I’m still here. I still exist,’ and gives people an opportunity to try to help out those businesses as much as they can.”
Kim Cahill, 54, of the city’s Graduate Hospital section, is one of those people. She said she is trying to be “intentional” about supporting local small businesses this holiday season. On Saturday, she walked through Christmas Village with her 73-year-old mother, Betsy Burke, and 19-year-old niece, Brooke Fields. The three wanted to meet up and spend time together this holiday season, she said, while staying safe.
Despite the sadness Cahill feels about losing holiday time with loved ones, she said Saturday was uplifting. They listened to the Christmas music playing in the background, could smell the food from the vendors while walking around, and even saw a couple get engaged by the LOVE sculpture.
“It was really heartwarming,” Cahill said. “It felt like the city was coming back to life.”
Christmas Village opens Thanksgiving, Nov. 26, and runs through Christmas Eve on Dec. 24. Its hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
The Made in Philadelphia Holiday Market at Dilworth Park is open now until Jan. 1. Its hours are also 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.