On the first night of Hanukkah, Rabbi Motti Wilhelm stood in front of a cell phone in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square with several dozen socially distant faithful.
“I was giving a sermon on mute,” he said, laughing. “Can you imagine a rabbi sermonizing and he’s muted!”
Usually, hundreds of people would be here to watch Wilhelm light the large metal menorah and celebrate the start of Hannukah. But this year, the event is being squeezed into a Zoom call.
“We’ve learned that we are more connected than we ever imagined,” Wilhelm told the gathering. “There’s no distance between somebody who has fever in Portland, to the small business keeper in Poland. We’ve learned how humanity is connected and united as one. And how our actions affect one another in ways we never imagined.”
The COVID-19 pandemic means radically different winter holiday celebrations this year, no matter your faith or traditions. All religious ceremonies are restricted under Gov. Kate Brown’s health and safety rules. In Multnomah County, for example, indoor faith gatherings are only allowed 25% of a building’s capacity, or 100 people, whichever is smaller. Many houses of worship aren’t even doing that.
Christians, lapsed or otherwise, seem to be responding by decorating for Christmas earlier than usual, “We started last year, the week before Thanksgiving,” said Rod Horner of the Yesteryear Tree Farm just outside Wilsonville. “This year it was two weeks before Thanksgiving. We sold our first tree by the 13 or 14th of November.”
He gave out some tree preserver, so the trees would last longer. He thinks people are tired of being home, so they might as well decorate early to enjoy the season — and the change in routine — and as long as possible.
Some families are buying multiple trees even though the governor has asked that actual holiday get-togethers, be smaller.
Horner said his wife comes from a large Italian family, which likes big get togethers during the holidays, but that’s not happening this season.
“They’re struggling with this,” he said. “Because that Italian culture is get together, drink wine, eat food, have fun.”
Tree sales are up 20% to 30%, according to Tom Norby, president of the Oregon Christmas Tree Growers Association. He said even people who own fake trees are buying the real deal this year.
“One of the things is that we go back to is simpler times,” Norby said. “And having a Christmas tree, a live being in the house, we can’t get out, so let’s bring a little bit of nature into us.”
While good sales mean a good income for Christmas tree growers this season, it doesn’t really alleviate worries about what next year might bring. That’s because Christmas trees take a long time to mature.
“You’re planning eight years out,” Norby said. “If you can tell me what the economy is going to be like in eight years, good on you.”
While many people have put more effort into decorating this year, it’s not because they’ll be entertaining more. Willamette University law student, Baily Tarabochia, expects to see fewer friends and have a lower-key celebration because of both COVID-19 and she’s not getting a paycheck.
“So I’m just keeping it a little bit more simple with the gifts this year,” Tarabochia said. “I’m trying to make a blanket, as opposed to just going out and buying a blanket.”
Her significant other, Christopher Davis, isn’t worried about smaller presents and parties. He’s pleased there’s now a vaccine. But that makes him nervous too.
“It kind of gives people a false sense of security,” he said. “I feel like now that they know there’s going to be a vaccine sooner rather than later, it might give people more incentive to take some chances that they otherwise probably wouldn’t.”
One final tradition that’s been largely cancelled this year is the office holiday party, although some businesses are trying the Zoom party option. No word yet on how they’ll be received.