At the summer meeting of the New England Santa Claus Society there was talk that this might be a year without Santa Claus. At least at the malls and stores. And while many Santas opted to go virtual and the Kris Kringle business is way down, You can still find a Santa here or there, socially distanced, wearing a mask, likely behind a plexiglass wall.
Santa Rick Banks, a proud member of the National Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, sits before a laptop in the basement of his house in Chichester and adjusts the camera to make sure the Christmas tree behind him can be seen. “This year we have gone virtual,” Santa Rick says, “we’ve done some real live gigs as we call them. But they’ve been socially distanced.”
One unexpected problem with those live gigs, he says: There’s a certain kind of kid who — if you happen to be Santa Claus — will make a run at you. “I’m pretty good with the moves,” he says, “I mean, sometimes you get one that runs right at you and you got to you know, be like a bullfighter.”
Santa Rick checks his watch and launches a Zoom call with a dance troupe of 10-year-old girls from Kingston. “Ho Ho Merry Christmas!” he greets them.
A few miles up the road, Santa Dan Greenleaf sits in a rocking chair at Cabella’s Bass Pro Fishing Shop in Hooksett and asks a little boy on the other side of a plexiglass wall if he has any questions for Santa. “Why are you wearing a mask?” the boy asks. “Why am I wearing a mask?” Greenleaf replies, “because I’m here to spread holiday cheer. Not germs!”
Greenleaf hears that question a lot and tells me how a fellow Santa recently called to warn him about the kids who don’t notice the plexiglass. “He had a 5-year-old come running full speed and jump — to jump into his arms,” Santa Dan says and laughs, “and he said it was kind of like a cartoon, where you saw the face and the cheek and the eye kind of squash against the thing. And the child fell onto the bench and then got up and laughed and shook it off.”
Not only has Greenleaf been a Santa for the last ten years, but he manages a whole stable of Santas throughout New England. “There’s a number of Santas who aren’t working at all this year,” Greenleaf says. “A number who are not doing any kind of in person work, they’re just going to do virtual things. And then of course, our bookings are way down.”
Seventy to 80 percent, Greenleaf says, and being Santa for the month of December is the main source of his income.
As one of the founders of the New England Santa Claus Society, Greenleaf says he began hearing grim reports from his network of Santas in early May. “And that, you know, the idea that there wasn’t going to be a Santa kinda scared people a little bit,” he says.
So Greenleaf scheduled a series of emergency Zoom meetings and every week through June and July the Santas brainstormed. “We bought shields, we bought see-through masks,” Greenleaf says, “I have a bubble that is like a single person bubble that you can sit in. One of our Santas has a 10-by-10 pop-up tent that’s a clear dome kind of thing. A couple of them are working in, like, snow globes.”
Both Santa Dan and Santa Rick say the worst part of this year is the lack of physical contact. Sitting with kids, holding babies.
But Santa Dan says if there’s one thing he will remember from this 2020 Christmas, it’s the way his fellow Santas rallied. “Santa is finding a way to see the kids,” he says, “whether it’s here behind a plexiglass wall, or virtually.”
In masks, behind walls, or just making use of Zoom like everyone else, Santa Claus in this pandemic year is finding a way to safely come to town.
The countdown has begun. There’s just one week left to meet the Arts Alive! fundraising challenge to benefit Peterborough artist and teacher Erin Sweeney’s efforts to bring free art projects to people of all ages.
Through Dec. 31, for every donation of $25 or more, Arts Alive! will give $5 to Sweeney. The money will be used to start a Keene initiative similar to her collaboration with the Peterborough Town Library. Launched just a few months ago, it’s called Curbside Crafts, and offers free revolving, take-home arts and crafts kits created by Sweeney, complete with materials and instructions. If the Arts Alive! fundraising effort is successful, the project would be up and running at a Keene location soon after the new year.
“If we get 100 donations, we will be able to give Erin $500,” Jessica Gelter, executive director of Arts Alive!, explained. “If we get 200 donations, we can give her $1,000.”
The money would help pay for supplies — everything from crayons to glue.
Last April, Sweeney was teaching art design at New England College in Henniker, working from home and taking care of her niece and nephew several days per week for her brother and sister-in-law. Her studio work was slowing down due to COVID-19, as she couldn’t allow people in.
One day, on a whim, she put out free arts and crafts supplies and kits she created on a table in front of her home — inviting people of all ages to help themselves. As soon as she spread the word on social media, not only did people take her up on her offer, but many started dropping off materials to her.
So began The Art Table, which soon became wildly popular.
“It just sort of grew,” she said.
Since then, she’s offered a variety of projects, from bound mini sketchbooks and paper collages to DIY pin cushions and paper boxes — all with donated materials. She’s even posted occasional brief instructional videos on her website (www.erinsweeney.net). And at the height of the local Black Lives Matter movement, she filled a rack with anti-racism posters by two different artists — one from Los Angeles, one from Brooklyn — free for the taking.
“I gave away more than 100 posters,” she said. “People came by and grabbed them. I mailed a bunch out as well. Some people made donations to different social justice organizations.”
In September, she approached the Peterborough Town Library to collaborate on a second initiative to engage even more people of all ages with art. Soon after, Curbside Crafts began, originally on a table inside a temporary space used by the library due to a major construction project on the building.
Sweeney creates and stocks the free craft kits and materials. The library puts out appropriate arts and crafts books for patrons to borrow. Projects have included knit kits with donated yarn and knitting needles, and embroidery kits, complete with needle, floss and muslin.
“Since October 20, we’ve given out 286 kits at the library,” Sweeney said recently, adding that on Dec. 15, 50 more kits were added.
Librarian Aimee LaRue agrees that the project has been a huge success. Unfortunately, due to the recent escalation of the virus, the library is now closed to the public and operating remotely. Despite that, Curbside Crafts is still available to adults and kids at no cost, but due to the virus, patrons can’t enter the building to check out books.
“We’ve moved the cart outside,” LaRue said. “It’s even more popular.”
Sweeney, who is in her late 40s, grew up in Peterborough and attended ConVal Regional High School.
She didn’t have a concrete career goal until her guidance counselor suggested she’d thrive in art school. After graduation, she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in sculpture at the Maine College of Art in Portland and subsequently a Master of Fine Arts degree in book arts and printmaking at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
Besides teaching book arts at her Peterborough studio, Lovely in the Home Press, she’s taught throughout the country and abroad, including at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine, in the University of Maine’s Book Arts Intensive and in Ireland. She also conducts online workshops with Maine Media of Rockland. Currently, she works as assistant director of advising at the Institute of Art and Design at New England College.
She was supposed to teach in person last summer, but because of the virus, ended up teaching remotely instead.
“I love teaching online, she said. “People in my class came from all over the country.”
A 2019 recipient of The Sentinel’s Ruth & James Ewing Arts Award for Excellence in the Arts (3D category), she served as a juror in 2020. Additionally, she’s a member of the N.H. State Council on the Arts Juried Artist Roster. Her husband, Jason Lambert, teaches at ConVal and is co-founder of Firelight Theatre in Peterborough. The arts run in the family. Her frequent studio companions and fellow artists are her niece, Ella, 9 and nephew, Winston, 7.
Sweeney, who can be contacted via her website, says her project will soon have a larger presence, especially if established in Keene.
“My own work kind of halted in March [due to the virus],” she said. “I didn’t know what to do with myself. I aligned this with my own work.”
Gelter looks forward to meeting Arts Alive!’s fundraising goal, and Sweeney’s project gaining footing in Keene.
“It’s an opportunity for her to get in front of a bigger audience,” Gelter said. “And if we find enough [community] partners, we can do it in other areas too.
“Erin offers The Art Table for free for everyone to use,” she added. “It’s the perfect embodiment of our mission to make the arts accessible to everyone.”
As for Sweeney, she’s happy that The Art Table and Curbside Crafts have made getting through COVID-19 restrictions a little easier for many people.
“The community here has been incredible,” she said.
“I am so grateful to everyone who has donated their time, their staff, their materials. I couldn’t do it without them.”
Christmas came early for Hundred Nights Inc. this year, when county officials gave the Keene nonprofit permission to park a coach bus it plans to use as emergency shelter in a downtown lot.
Under a Dec. 11 memorandum of understanding signed by Cheshire County Administrator Chris Coates, Hundred Nights will be allowed to park the bus in a county-owned lot behind the Subway at 37 Main St. until April 30, 2021. The site is opposite Lamson Street from the organization’s emergency shelter, where it provides 24 beds for people experiencing homelessness.
Hundred Nights plans to offer as many as 10 beds on the bus, which must be operational by Dec. 30 to comply with restrictions on the federal funds it used to purchase the vehicle, according to Executive Director Mindy Cambiar.
It is unclear whether Hundred Nights must obtain additional approval from the city to operate the bus as a shelter, however, since the central business zoning district where it will be located does not allow lodging houses, as its Lamson Street shelter is designated. (Hundred Nights received a land-use variance for that site in 2010.) Municipal staff could not be reached Wednesday for clarification.
But Keene Mayor George Hansel criticized the Dec. 11 agreement on Wednesday night, explaining that the county claims it is exempt from municipal zoning restrictions as a government entity. Hansel said he believes there is “broad agreement we need to provide shelter for people in the winter” but argued that Hundred Nights should work toward solutions within the city’s regulatory framework.
“I worry about the ability for them to house people safely in a confined space like a bus,” he said. “… Those codes are in place for a reason.”
Hansel, a member of the recently revamped N.H. Council on Housing Stability, also called the bus-turned-shelter plan unnecessary, noting a partnership between Hundred Nights and the Keene Inn that is currently providing emergency shelter for 16 people at the West Street motel.
Hundred Nights turned to the bus as a stopgap measure to help replace two dozen beds that it provided as overflow shelter during the colder months last year. The pair of Elm City churches where those beds were located — United Church of Christ and St. James Episcopal Church — opted not to host Hundred Nights guests this year due to COVID-related concerns.
In September, Hundred Nights received a land-use variance at 122–124 Water St., where it hopes to build a permanent facility eventually and relocate its housing resource center, currently located at the former St. James Thrift Shop behind the church on West Street. The organization had planned to provide temporary units at the Water Street site in the meantime, but its acquisition of the property is on hold after nearby property owners filed a lawsuit challenging the zoning board’s decision to grant a variance.
A subsequent attempt by Hundred Nights to provide 24 beds at the vacant 15 King Court property for two years fell through Dec. 7, when the zoning board rejected its petition for a change of nonconforming use at that site.
The nonprofit has temporarily expanded its overflow capacity through a recent partnership with the Keene Inn that will last until May 1.
As of Wednesday, the West Street motel was providing a dozen rooms for 16 Hundred Nights guests at a discounted rate to the organization, according to Cambiar. She said earlier this month, however, that she hoped to limit costs by reducing the number of rooms to 10 or 11.
That appears likely following Hundred Nights’ purchase of a 45-foot Van Hool coach bus, which Cambiar said Wednesday would likely shelter up to 10 guests — including any displaced if the organization reduces its capacity at the Keene Inn.
“It means we can actually provide the service that we say we’re going to provide to 48 people,” she said. “These are people who are already here and deserve to have a roof over their heads. Having it happen right at Christmastime is kind of a wonderful thing.”
Already outfitted with four triple-bunk beds, a bathroom and additional seating, the bus will be reconfigured to create more space and add flame-retardant partitions between beds, Cambiar said earlier this month.
Accommodations in the Lamson Street shelter will be available on a first-come, first-served basis, she explained Wednesday, though families currently living there will not be removed.
“People who arrive later in the evening will most likely end up on the bus,” she said. “I think it’ll be so brand new and exciting that first week that people will want to go on the bus.”
Under the county’s Dec. 11 agreement with Hundred Nights, the organization will lease parking spaces for the bus at the former Latchis Theatre location. Rather than running the engine while it is used overnight, a nearby transformer will provide electricity for the bus’ internal heating system, according to Coates.
Hundred Nights would need to request parking permission from the county in subsequent years, he said, since the agreement will expire at the end of April. It can also be terminated by either party before then.
Cambiar said she expects Hundred Nights to use the bus as shelter for at least the next two winters, given the uncertain timelines around both the pandemic and when the Water Street properties may become available.
“Even if COVID is done by next winter, we won’t have another place to go into,” she said.
Cheshire County commissioners — three elected officials who oversee the county’s spending — also allocated more than $9,000 earlier this month to help Hundred Nights afford rooms at the Keene Inn, according to Coates. He said the recent moves are an effort to back the nonprofit’s push for additional bedspace this winter while also relieving pressure on city officials to identify solutions.
“We don’t feel that the burden should be 100 percent on the city,” he said Wednesday. “Our commissioners felt it was [county] citizens that were seeking help, too.”
Hundred Nights used federal CARES Act funds it was recently awarded via the state’s $15 million Shelter Modification Program, which has helped shelters implement safety protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic, to purchase the bus. It will also be reimbursed from that program for any renovations done by Dec. 30, with Cambiar estimating that the expenses will total slightly less than $50,000.
But the Dec. 30 deadline to spend the federal aid means Hundred Nights has only a week to make the bus operational. (It would be extended if President Donald Trump signs a $900 billion stimulus bill that Congress passed earlier this week.)
After receiving title for the bus Tuesday night, Cambiar registered it with the city Wednesday — though she expects to wait multiple days for the N.H. Department of Motor Vehicles to provide the license plate.
A representative from the Tennessee vendor Busforsale.com is scheduled to drive the bus to Keene by Monday, at which point it will need to be inspected. If it passes inspection, as Cambiar expects, the Busforsale.com representative will train Hundred Nights staff on Tuesday “so that we know what buttons to push and … how to make the heat come on,” she said, followed by a champagne toast to celebrate achieving its 48-bed goal.
Cambiar added, however, that the organization remains committed to acquiring the 122–124 Water St. properties to ensure its long-term stability.
“We’re not done with the big fight yet,” she said.