It’s a pandemic life in Indiana.
The area’s signature holiday season event is the latest to feel the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak, as representatives of the Downtown Indiana promotion group, the Lucy Donnelly Memorial Foundation and the Indiana County Tourist Bureau on Monday announced changes to the annual It’s A Wonderful Life Festival.
While Downtown Indiana will maintain the look, and especially the feel, of the holidays, beginning before Thanksgiving and continuing until almost New Year’s, the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds will be absent.
Notably missing from the schedule this year will be the kickoff parade on Philadelphia Street and celebratory Christmas tree-lighting ceremony on North Seventh Street.
“Right now, even in the green phase, you’re not allowed more than 250 people in an outdoor gathering,” said Hastie Kinter, a leader of the Lucy Donnelly Memorial program. “We’ve had estimates of 9,000 to 10,000 people coming to this event the past few years, so there’s no question that unfortunately we cannot have the parade and the Light-Up Night kickoff event.”
Both had usually drawn throngs from throughout Indiana County and the region on the Friday evening before Thanksgiving.
This year, Downtown Indiana Director Linda Mitchell said, the organizations still plan to erect a huge evergreen tree in the IRMC Park section of North Seventh Street and set up the Christmas Village huts and kiosks for a month’s worth of activities.
“We are thrilled that First Commonwealth Bank will again be a naming sponsor of the festival,” Mitchell said. “We will have a tree from Musser Forest and work with Gregg Van Horn, the president of the Indiana County Christmas Tree Growers Association, on that.
“We’ve worked with ‘Santa Claus’ on how to keep his presence and to keep everyone safe so that children can visit with him.”
The tree will be lit but without ballyhoo: Packing IRMC Park for a countdown to light-up won’t be possible.
In more low-key fashion, Mitchell said, the tree growers will tow in the evergreen, set it up, string the lights and quietly throw the switch in the few days before Thanksgiving.
Look for the sleigh to be parked in front of the decorated tree (sponsored by InFirst Bank) for families to have photo ops, Mitchell said. Throughout town, the lighted figures formerly shown at the Blue Spruce Park Festival of Lights will be set up to keep the season bright, as in years past.
“We’ll have an ‘Elf on the Shelf’ promotion and ‘Small Business Saturday,’” Mitchell said. “And we’ll have an eye on making sure everyone is safe and comfortable.”
The Jimmy Stewart Museum will plan a series of pandemic-safe activities, too, she said.
It’s all meant to give downtown shoppers the kind of season they’ve enjoyed in the past.
The participants haven’t been forgotten either. Marching and performing in the yearly Light-Up Night parade, signifying the start of the holiday season, is as much a thrilling part of tradition as the parade is for the thousands who gather to watch it.
For them, Kinter said, the committee has pondered holding an off-site procession to be recorded and produced for online viewing.
“We are talking about doing some kind of virtual parade, but those details are yet to be determined,” she said. “We’re talking with the groups to see if we could video them and put a virtual parade together, but a lot has to be worked out.”
The strings of white lights outlining the contours of the downtown buildings will be lit as usual.
“And we’ll do everything we can to make the downtown as attractive as possible, to bring people in, and to have that feeling of community and Christmas spirit,” Kinter said.
“Christmas has to go on!” she said. “We’ll do what we can, modify what we must. And the things we can’t do safely, we’ll put away and come back next year.”