In any other year, today would be a day of some, if not huge, significance, at least for the downtown area in Gunnison. This should be the final day of preparation for our annual Night of Lights, a community-wide kick-off to the holiday season.
Some years it’s absolutely bitter cold, sometimes it’s unseasonably warm. One magical year, never to be duplicated, a soft snow arrived just in time to really make it feel Christmasy and cheery. But no matter the weather, much of Gunnison gathers in the closed-to-cars blocks of downtown, milling about, soaking in holiday ambiance as they await the arrival of Santa, pulled slightly confusingly by Elks (the service club) dressed as reindeer, who comes out of the north to light the community Christmas tree standing outside the arts center at the south end of downtown.
This year? The tree is there, I think — it just now occurs to me that even though I traveled south on Main just yesterday, I didn’t look up to verify there’s a giant tree taking up much of the road down the way — but the lights are just going to be turned on, no fanfare, as it grows dark tonight. No Santa, just a cardboard cutout near the tree in case you want a photo with your kids.
No barricading the street to cars. No businesses or organizations from without the downtown coming in to set up a vending booth on the street. No milling about, greeting your friends, listening to school bands and choirs. None of that, just a Grinch named Corona.
Our chamber of commerce is once again trying as hard as it can. The annual window decoration contest is on, and Gilly has again produced a thematic masterpiece. Merchants apparently pushed for the theme of “Christmas campfire,” because it sounded like everyone would be able to use items they already had, saving some money.
There’s also an elf scavenger hunt: cut the playing board out of the newspaper, then wander around downtown trying to spot multiple iterations of the same four elves. Pat’s has one in our window, but you’ll have to come down to see which one. In this season of awareness, one of the elves is named Diego, to go with Astrid and Karl and the more-descriptive-than-an-actual name, Sprite.
And downtown businesses have been asked to stay open late each of the next three Fridays. We’re already open later than many of our fellows, closing at 6, and while Gilly is prepared to stick it out until 7, she and I — the ‘A’ shift that works until 6 — have our doubts that anyone is going to make an effort to come down and shop after dark. It’s a rare customer that comes in after 5 on any winter evening. But we’ll try it, at least tonight.
What I won’t be doing is what I do every year on the afternoon leading up to the Night of Lights. I haven’t gone and spent a small fortune on snacks; all my fun and festive serving trays are still securely tucked in plastic tubs in the garage loft, not to be unpacked and set out on our annual hospitality table.
It usually goes up today and stays out until early January. It makes staff and customers happy, so it’s sad anyway to not be putting it out, but it also makes me think of Bob Teitler. Bob was Gunnison’s first and so far, I think, only death due to covid. (We had five others in the valley, all of them from Crested Butte.)
Bob, whose two sons are about my age, also had a later-in-life daughter from a second relationship. Sophie, still in high school, lost her mom to cancer and now, this year, her dad to covid. But in years past, she and her dad would come in looking for this or that shirt for a school project or gift, and Bob used every opportunity to avail himself of the M&Ms on the hospitality table. Sometimes he’d pop in just to say hi and sample the table.
So there would have been a touch of melancholy setting up the table anyway, knowing we wouldn’t see Bob this season, but at this point it just doesn’t feel like the season is upon us at all.
Gilly has festooned the entire shop with holiday sights, and Kara and her new conspirator Vann have filled it with holiday sounds, but the weather is warm and dry and one elf in the window does not a Night of Lights make.
There is yet a planned community night of light: the city spearheaded a project to sell luminarias, and everyone is being encouraged to set them out on the evening of the solstice. I didn’t buy any from the city, but last year used my cat-box supplies (lunch bags and cat litter), plus a few of our century’s-worth of tea candles to light up the driveway for the Pat’s festive holiday party (which we determined the other day will be virtual this year).
The downtown tree will be lit tonight, and the man who owns the Christmas store was out the other day, stringing white lights on all the downtown trees. City personnel have hung wreaths from all the light posts, and I assume those will all be lit up for the first time tonight.
I doubt, without the spectacle of Santa and all the street conviviality of our usual Night of Lights, that shoppers will turn out this evening, but we all know prognostication is not my strong suit and maybe I will be wrong.
There are holidays coming, ready or not, and this year they’re just going to be different. Instead of a rowdy, joyful Night of Lights tonight, we will have a more subdued but probably lovely soft light from solstice luminarias. And vaccines are on their way, so hopefully next year the table will be back in its usual place near the cash register.
The hospitality at Pat’s this year will be found not in food but in the air purifier provided this past week by the county. Safety should always be the first concern, and if we all make it through the month in healthy fashion — well, that’s about the best gift we can give one another.