Families welcome return of Philly’s Christmas village despite COVID-19 surge

Patricia Walter (left), Patrick Walter-Hutter, and Marcia Hutter enjoy some German food at the Christmas Village food court

Patricia Walter (left), Patrick Walter-Hutter, and Marcia Hutter enjoy some German food at the Christmas Village food court, which is being kept separate from gift vendors as a COVID-19 mitigation effort. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

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Patrick Walter-Hutter, 8, said his time in quarantine with his moms hasn’t been too bad. His family recently moved to Conshohocken where they live near a park, which makes it easy for him to see classmates from a distance. The family also got two kittens, and Patrick said he likes being able to spend time with them.

But he said coming to the Christmas Village in Center City is some of the most fun he’s had all year.

“I like all of the cabins and the decorations and the reindeers on the roof. I especially love the German food, plus I am German… so I’m digging it,” said Patrick as he took a break from munching on some spaetzle.

On Thanksgiving, Pennsylvania recorded more than 8,000 COVID-19 cases — the highest-ever single day count for the commonwealth. In response to rising coronavirus cases in Philly, the city has imposed new restrictions on indoor dining and other indoor activities.

But the village carries on.

Shanti Mayers (left) and her 10-year-old daughter Jolie Abraha skated and browsed the Christmas Village
Shanti Mayers (left) and her 10-year-old daughter Jolie Abraha skated and browsed the Christmas Village this weekend in search of some holiday cheer. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

For more than a decade, Philadelphia’s Christmas Village has been home to dozens of food and gift vendors from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve. This year, the German-style holiday market is back, but with COVID-19 mitigation efforts, including 50% fewer vendors to help create additional space.

The village is sectioned off into two parts. The perimeter of LOVE Park is lined with gift vendors, which are spaced 10 feet apart. Patrons must be masked at all times and are encouraged to come back to booths that have crowds of 10 people or more.

And to get some spaetzle or smoked bratwurst, patrons like Patrick have to enter an area sectioned off as a food court in LOVE Park. Picnic tables and high tops are spaced apart and “social distancing ambassadors” keep track of how many people are in the space and make sure that people are adhering to coronavirus mitigation efforts.

Amy Silvestri and her family get ready to explore the Christmas Village after a quick bite.
Amy Silvestri and her family get ready to explore the Christmas Village after a quick bite. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

But several families visiting the village Sunday told WHYY they were grateful the space opened at all this year.

Mt. Airy resident Shanti Mayers, who brought her daughter Jolie Abraha, 10, for an ice skate in front of City Hall, said just being able to browse the booths and see the horse-drawn carriages were a welcome reprieve from the isolation 2020 has brought.

“Hearing the Christmas music makes me remember, oh this is a feeling that usually comes around this time of year, that I haven’t felt in a really long time,” said Mayers. “It felt really, really good. We came here last night when they had the lights up and we just walked around and got a gift for my mom and it was kind of like the spark of, oh this is actually super special regardless of COVID.”

Mayers said she liked that tickets for skating had to be purchased in advance and that her skating session wasn’t packed. This is only the second year Mayers and her daughter have come to the rink for a skate, but Mayers said the activity could become a tradition as Jolie gets more comfortable with skating.

Amy Silvestri, her husband, and three children came to check out the Village and the rink for the first time this year. The group came from Haddon Heights, New Jersey, hoping it could become a new tradition.

“We just finished Thanksgiving, so this is a bit early for us to be already transitioning to Christmas but glad that it’s happening,” said Silvestri. “It’s nice to be able to get out of the house. It’s nice that the weather’s been good so we can be outside.”

yahmiya Sanders (left) and her friend Gogisgk Soquili Dimalanta at Christmas Village
Even with social distancing measures in place, the Christmas Village is not for everyone. Tyahmiya Sanders (left) and her friend Gogisgk Soquili Dimalanta left after a quick tour of the village. They thought it was too crowded. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Still, the market is not for everyone. Tyahmiya Sanders and her best friend came to check out the shops so they could spend some time together, but Sanders, who experiences anxiety, said the crowds were overwhelming.

“I don’t like coming outside during the pandemic, honestly,” said Sanders. “And a lot of people I guess they’re not following the social distancing rules and they keep brushing up on me.”

Sanders said she liked that she gave the village a try, but she and her friend were going to find a cheerful and hopefully less crowded space.

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