How to safely enjoy COVID Christmas, from a NASCAR track to a tea party

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With Christmas still the granddaddy of all the holidays when it comes to decorating, festive displays have sprung up all over Southern California. The Irwindale Speedway has gone all-in on holiday lights while staying true to its motorsports roots. Photo Matt Guilhem/KCRW

It might feel like we’re in the 35th week of March, but with Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of Year” in regular rotation these days, there’s no fighting the calendar. It’s December. 

The 1963 holiday standard talks about “kids jingle-belling” and “everyone telling you be of good cheer.” Well, it’s 2020 and there’s a pandemic happening. Can the jingle-belling happen over Zoom? In spite of the year it’s been, we could all use more than a little good cheer.

While a lot of the signs (or basically all of them) point to this being a fairly joyless holiday season, isn’t that all the more reason to try and make something of it?

It might be more of a challenge to tap into the holiday spirit this year, but pour yourself some eggnog, get cozy by the fire, and let’s navigate COVID Christmas. 

Earlier this year, a bunch of drive-thru Halloween and fall events popped up, so people are again getting creative when it comes to safely adding a bit of magic to the holiday season.

Staying home and enjoying your own Christmas decorations is  the safest bet, but the next best thing is keeping the cheer contained to your car. 

There are drive-thru experiences galore this year. The Pomona Fairplex has one with an Elf on the Shelf theme. Dodger Stadium is getting in on the trend with their Holiday Festival 2020. As they come off their World Series win, they’re doing a little mixing of Santa and stickball. And in Irwindale, just off the 605 freeway not far from Pasadena, is Santa’s Speedway.

The entire Irwindale Speedway complex, which includes a drag strip and a NASCAR track, has been turned into a Christmas light wonderland for the first time ever. Anchoring the big display is a massive tree made of lights that’s over 100 feet tall and visible from miles away.

Pasted Image Visitors to Santa’s Speedway not only get to see the huge sparkling tree at the center of the display up close, but several themed areas have been constructed, including this under-the-seascape. Photo Matt Guilhem/KCRW

The president of the speedway, Tim Huddleston, said the entire display came together in just a few weeks after a chance meeting with a professional light designer who’s done the decorations for some major venues and theme parks around LA.

“So happenstance, we met each other about five weeks ago, and I said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a lot of space and a lot of electricity and a lot of good people.’” Huddleston recalls. “He said, ‘I’ve got a lot of Christmas decorations.’”

If that wasn’t lucky enough, we’re about to dial up the weird factor up to 11. Originally, Huddleston thought they might do a holiday drive-in movie theater at the racetrack, but after happening to meet Jason Zdenek, the light guy, the plan changed.

Huddleston and Zdenek decided to meet up to iron out the details. Each of their respective spouses are involved in their businesses, so the meeting was going to be a family affair. When Zdenek said he lived in Agoura Hills, it turned out Huddleston did too.

“We literally live two blocks from each other,” says Huddleston. “And we meet and walk in, and he introduced me to his wife Lisa, and I turned around and introduced him to my wife Lisa. So then we went down and he introduced me to his oldest son Trevor, and I introduced him to my oldest son Trevor. You can’t make this stuff up, man.”

Pasted Image Near the beginning of Santa’s Speedway, before driving on the actual racetrack, cars pass through a twinkling tunnel of lights. Photo Matt Guilhem/KCRW

In just a few weeks, Santa’s Speedway was planned, built, and lit. It has more than 10 million lights winding around some two miles of racetrack.

But like so many other businesses, Huddleston says this has been a devastating year for the speedway. It’s used pretty frequently for film and TV shoots, and he says those have been fairly consistent, but still, times are hard.

“It’s been tough,” Huddleston says, shifting to a decidedly different tone than his typically gregarious one. “Our crew and our staff, they hung in there with me, and to get here, whatever chips we had left, we just pushed them all in right now, I’m telling you. We need to make our year in the next five weeks. It has to happen.”

While the millions of lights provide people with a festive outing, it’s not all fun. This is his livelihood, and everything is on the line for the speedway this holiday season. 

As for the display itself, there’s a tunnel made of lights you drive through, there’s what appears to be a campground made of lights with the forest floor and a river shining a bright green and blue. 

However, the pièce de résistance is the huge Christmas tree made of lights towering over the track’s infield. There are so many tiny bulbs that it appears to shimmer. The whole thing takes about 40 or so minutes to drive through and take-in. 

Pasted Image Coming in at more than 110 feet tall, the organizers of Santa’s Speedway say their grand tree of lights is record setting. Photo Matt Guilhem/KCRW

As for the cost, all of the drive-thru experiences are different. Santa’s Speedway is $59 per vehicle with up to eight people in the car or SUV. The Dodger Stadium Holiday Festival starts at $50 but gets more expensive based on the time and day. A weekend outing to the lights at Chavez Ravine could come in around $115. A display at the Ventura County Fairgrounds near the ocean will set you back about $70 for a weekend visit.

Free holiday options 

While drive-thru options abound this year, they do tend to be a little pricey. Given the economy, the reality is some people might be out of work and can’t afford to shell out to look at lights. Thankfully, there are still plenty of ways to take in some seasonal decorations at no cost.

If you want some yuletide cheer, go for a drive through some well lit neighborhoods. In Pasadena, the Upper Hastings Ranch neighborhood has gone all out. Altadena’s Christmastree Lane is still going strong — it’s celebrating its 100th year. And in the Inland Empire, residents of Rancho Cucamonga who live on Thoroughbred and Jennett Streets are attempting to be visible from space. 

But lights and decorations are just part of the seasonal tapestry. This is the time of year when carols, choirs, and choruses come back into fashion. Except not in 2020. The only thing singing is good for, at the moment, is spreading possibly infectious respiratory droplets.

So the sing-a-longs may be out, but one of the most iconic musical events of the holiday season endures: “The Nutcracker.” 

Pasted Image Ballerinas leap and melodies soar in Los Angeles Ballet’s annual holiday production of “The Nutcracker.” Due to the pandemic, this year’s digital edition will lean heavily on videos of past performances. Photo courtesy Reed Hutchinson/Los Angeles Ballet

Los Angeles Ballet is hosting what it’s billing as “a special virtual event.” It’s not exactly a live stream of a performance, but it’s definitely on point(e) for 2020.

Rather than stage their annual performances of “The Nutcracker” at venues all around the city, this year the ballet is coming to you by way of an interactive digital tea party. Yes, tea party.

“We came up with this idea of Clara’s Nutcracker Tea Party that happens in her home,” says Colleen Neary, the co-artistic director of Los Angeles Ballet. “We invite everyone in to meet some of the characters, and then they will see sections of ‘The Nutcracker’ from our previous performances … The children will interact with Clara, they’ll receive a party box, and she’ll open gifts from it that will turn into one of the characters and then go into the dancing scene. It will be a charming, charming thing.”

Pasted Image At the beginning of “The Nutcracker,” the little girl Clara’s family gathers at her home to celebrate Christmas. This year, the get-together will be fairly intimate as Clara has just a few friends over, let’s call it her bubble, to share tea while being broadcast into the homes of the audience. Photo courtesy Reed Hutchinson/Los Angeles Ballet

It’s a brilliant pandemic pivot that keeps the annual tradition of Tchaikovsky alive and well even during the pandemic.

The ballet is using this tea party as a fundraiser, but it’s still pretty accessible. It’s happening on December 20 and can be live streamed for $39. If you want a party box to open along with Clara and her friends, that’ll cost $125. Higher giving levels include a tea service you can pick up in-person that comes with sandwiches and sweets.