Not even a pandemic, a statewide curfew or a ban on mass outdoor gatherings is stopping San Jose’s decades-old Christmas tradition from fostering the holiday spirit.
In the name of safety, Christmas in the Park — an annual outdoor pop-up featuring crowds, food and decorative displays — has been reimagined as a festive drive-thru light show around San Jose’s History Park. The event kicks off Nov. 27 and runs through Jan. 3.
“We’ve added a lot of singing characters and candy canes and other lighted sculptures to the event to really create this magical experience,” said Jason Minsky, executive director of the Christmas in the Park nonprofit. “People are going to be expecting a drive-thru version of our normal event — and it’s just so much more.”
Residents can drive under 300-foot light arches, see a 125-foot light tower shaped like a Christmas tree and cruise past decorated historic buildings.
The parade of vehicles will start in an underground parking lot to minimize street traffic. Here spectators will pass by kitschy holiday-themed stages traditionally seen at Christmas in the Park, including a reindeer barn, Nutcracker display and Christmas in the Caribbean stage. All sets and lights will be synchronized to Christmas music on FM 93.1.
Each year, Christmas in the Park has a $1 million budget to bring its winter wonderland to life. This year the event, which has been free to the public for decades, has to charge admission — $10 to $20 — to make up for lost revenue from in-person food sales and donations.
“We’ve had generations of families that celebrate the holidays at Christmas in the Park at no charge,” Minsky said. “We wanted to keep in mind those people that still might not be able to afford a $10 or $20 ticket.”
Christmas in the Park received a $10,000 grant from Google to sponsor free attendance. The organization worked with SOMOS Mayfair and Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County to distribute tickets.
Residents who buy tickets also have the option of purchasing an extra ticket to donate to another family. Approximately 8% of sales have gone toward donated tickets, Minsky said.
“We’re grateful for the opportunity to invite all families to celebrate safely this holiday season and give some love to a great San Jose asset,” said Chelsey Prewitt with SOMOS Mayfair.
Prewitt said the organization, which strives to eliminate inequities in San Jose, received 500 tickets to distribute to East San Jose families. Jimmy Shoven with Catholic Charities said his organization gave 250 tickets to programs that help with food distribution, an after-school program and a refugee foster care youth program.
Christmas with a curfew
Ticket prices are based on time slots. The cheapest hour is 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. because the sky isn’t completely dark.
The 9:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. time slot was eliminated after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew starting Nov. 21. Anyone who purchased tickets for that period has the option to select a different time.
“Our ticket sales have been pretty solid so far and every night they increase. So we know it’s popular right now,” Minsky said. “Especially with the curfew, people are going to be looking for something to do — they need to get out of the house.”
A cure for holiday blues
San Jose resident Braxton Alsip has attended Christmas in the Park since 2006, when he moved to San Jose, and has made it a tradition to grab a hot chocolate and enjoy the sights.
“One year off as a precaution is not a bad thing. I think a drive-thru one definitely offers safety,” Alsip said, adding he’d consider going this year even if he had to pay.
“It’s definitely a special event,” Alsip said. “You’ll find trees down there that are dedicated to a person who has passed on. It’s surprisingly touching.”
Virginia Lively, a San Jose native, was just a toddler when she attended her first Christmas in the Park and has participated every year since. She always grabs a churro and a Mexican hot chocolate before walking around the animated stages and looking at Christmas trees. But seeing all the people milling around and having a great time is what really makes the event special, Lively said.
“That’s like the best possible way to get in a Christmas mood. It always cures my Christmas blues,” Lively said.
She said she hates to see the event lose its interactive touch but would rather see a drive-thru than no event at all. “I’m actually quite happy that they’ve found a way around it where people can be safe,” she said.
Minsky said even though Christmas in the Park has been hosted in downtown in recent years, it dates back to the 1950s when Christmas-themed displays were peppered throughout San Jose.
“Multiple generations are used to this event,” Minsky said. “So for us, we couldn’t not do it. We had to try and figure out a way.”
To get tickets, visit the Christmas in the Park website.
Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.